Definition of Social Classes

I-General introduction :

Class is the kind of secondary group that is of special interest to social scientists. Indeed, it is at the root of much academic and political controversy and argument. While the existence of strata in every society is an observable and acknowledged fact, the specific nature and foundations of class have been the subject of much relatively earnest debate. Some sociologists, for example, conceive of class in terms of income or even dismiss the notion of class altogether and refer to status consciousness instead. Attitudes to class in contemporary Britain, Switzerland and Germany provide typical examples. Research in these countries permitted the following conclusions to emerge:

a) Most people see their society as divided into strata marked by discrepancies in “wealth, prestige and power”.

b) Some people view their society as comprising two major sections opposed in terms of power. Others represent society as an “extended hierarchy of relatively ‘open’ strata” separated in terms of prestige”.

c) The “power model” roughly corresponds to working class (wage-earning) images and “the prestige model” to those of the middle class (“salaried or independent non-manual workers”).

d) These two models correspond to two different sets of values and attitudes.

e) The difference between these two sets of values can be roughly described as that between individualism and collectivism.3

In fact the very use of the word class in the social sense we give it at present may help guide us towards a better understanding of the problem of class. In English this use dates back to the period between 1770 and 1840 and Raymond Williams points out that “it relates to the increasing consciousness that social position is made rather than (merely) inherited.”4 This does not mean, of course, that there were no classes before that period; Karl Marx points out in the Communist Manifesto that “the history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggles.” However, this does not make the word any clearer, and for the purposes of this course, it is necessary to explain the concept of class as well as related concepts, such as class consciousness and ideology.

II-Elements towards a definition of the concept of class:

What we must first bear in mind is that “class is a relationship and not a thing”5, in the sense that no tangible social reality could be designated as being a class. As we have seen above, secondary groups exist as a set of relations mediated by a number of concrete as well as abstract means. For this reason, Nicos Poulantzas describes class as follows:

“La classe sociale est un concept qui indique les effets de l’ensemble des structures de la matrice d’un mode de production ou d’une formation sociale sur les agents qui en constituent les supports: ce concept indique donc les effets de la structure globale dans le domaine des rapports sociaux.”6

Social formation is global society. The mode of production, on the other hand, should be understood in relation to the notion of infrastructure, i.e. as “the combination of the different material and social conditions which enable the members of a society to produce and reproduce the material means of their social existence”, including:

1) The supply of natural resources.

2) The productive forces: material and intellectual means utilized within the labour processes to act upon nature. The means extracted thereby become the “socialized’ part of nature.

3) The relations of production (between men) whose function is to determine:

a) The social control of resources and means of production

b) The social distribution and organization of labour.

c) The circulation and distribution of products.

Productive forces and relations of production do not exist separately. They are always combined and it is the form of their combinations that constitute “social forms of production” or “modes of production.”7

Modes of production themselves, however, do not exist separately as distinct parts of reality. They are abstract entities and only social formations, composed of a combination of modes of production, can be observed.8

Class should then be understood as the effect of social relations of all levels of a mode of production or of a social formation. There are several levels that make up the structure of a mode of production (ideological, economic, political). This implies that social relations will reflect the links between these levels, i.e. there are ideological, economic and political class practices which conflict with each other. Within social relations, class is a pattern. A social formation is, however, usually composed of overlapping modes of production, one of which is dominant. Social classes in a given social formation will always reflect the peculiar combination of the modes of that specific formation. Various phenomena, such as the breaking up of classes, will occur as a result of the combination of the modes of production.

Political class struggle constitutes a privileged level of social relations which consist in a manifold struggle: political, economic and ideological. But within a social formation, the domination of a mode of production usually means that classes belonging to other non-dominant modes lose their impact.

The presence of any of these classes at the political level will not reach political organization or the elaboration of an ideology of its own. What usually happens is that the classes of the non-dominant mode will orbit around classes of the dominant mode of production (transformation of the nobility into a fraction of the bourgeois class or of the petty bourgeoisie or of the working class). Political struggle is always a characteristic of the presence of a class even when this class is primarily interested in economic struggle. In this case, political struggle is simply inefficient but not absent. Divisions within a social class may constitute social forces. Some marginal divisions, which do not constitute a social force, may influence the political practice of a class, as was the case with the English labour aristocracy in the nineteenth century.9

III-Class consciousness:

For the observer of the history of nations, however, it is difficult to separate class from class consciousness. Class in the full sense only comes into existence when the members of a class become aware of themselves as a class. “Class happens”, says E.P. Thompson, “when some men, as a result of common experiences (inherited or shared), feel and articulate the identity of their interests as between themselves, and as against other men whose interests are different from and usually opposed to theirs. The class experience is largely determined by the productive relations into which men are born or enter involuntarily. Class consciousness is the way in which these experiences are handled in cultural terms: embodied in traditions, value-systems, ideas and institutional forms. If the experience appears as determined, class consciousness does not. We can see a logic in the responses of similar occupational groups undergoing similar experiences, but we cannot predict any law. Consciousness of class arises in the same way in different times and in different places, but never in just the same way.”10

The social history of the word ‘class’ seems to indicate that class consciousness, as we now understand it, may have emerged in the modern industrial era (late eighteenth and early nineteenth century in Europe). E. J. Hobsbawm explains this by the cohesion of capitalist economy “as a single entity” and the immediacy and direct reality of the class experience under capitalism.

This is the very foundation of the essential difference between the class consciousness of the modern era and that of the pre-capitalist society. However, as Marx indicated in the Communist Manifesto, the area of “modern class consciousness” remains that of nation states. Links of class solidarity and political commitment tend to get weaker outside these states. The reason suggested by Hobsbawm is that the territorial limits of these modern states correspond to those of the main units of economic development.

Forms of class consciousness differ depending on the class concerned, whether in the “day-by-day specific demands” or in the more general social purposes. A case in point in this respect is the difference between bourgeois and working class attitudes. The bourgeois attitude is to hide an acute class consciousness behind a front of “classlessness” and a concern for the general welfare of the people or the nation at large. A typical instance of this is the contrast between the “public” position of the Anti-Corn Law League and its “confidential” attitude in nineteenth-century England. Whereas the slogan of the League was “Bread for the People”, one of its most vocal leaders, Richard Cobden, wrote in his letters that he was using the masses to frighten the aristocracy.

By comparison with the Anti-Corn Law League, the contemporaneous Chartist movement was much more an openly and explicitly popular and class-based political movement. Formed to claim the franchise for the working class, it was a widespread, well structured movement, with branches all over the country, for which organization was a vital necessity. Indeed organization permitted collective action, the soul and the condition of the very existence of that proletarian movement.

The difference in their relation to class consciousness and to organization may be due to the different composition, social position and experience of each of the two classes. Whereas bourgeois individuals are influential and can act effectively with only a loose organization and a general ideology to link them to each other, workers derive their force from their numbers, and depend on organization for their necessarily collective action. 11


3 J. H. Goldthorpe and D. Lockwood in E. Butterworth and D. Weir, eds., The Sociology of Modern Britain, (London: Fontana, 1970), p. 210.

4 Raymond Williams, Keywords (London: Fontana, 1976.), p. 52.

5 E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (1963, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968), p. 11.

6 Nicos Poulantzas, Pouvoir politique & classes sociales (Paris: Maspéro, 1968 & 1971), Vol. I,
p. 66.

7 Maurice Godelier in Raphael Samuel and Gareth Stedman Jones, eds., Culture Ideology and Politics (London: Routledge, 1982), pp.17-18.

8 Poulantzas, op. cit., p. 8.

9 Ibid., pp. 54-100.

10 Thompson, op. cit., pp. 9-10.

11 E. J. Hobsbawm, “Class consciousness in history” in I. Mezaros, ed., Aspects of History and Class Consciousness (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971), pp. 5-21.