Class and Class Struggle

Class and Class Struggle

Karl Marx recognized class ( a group of people.) as a unique feature of capitalist societies. In Capital (1894), under the title of ‘Social Classes’ Marx distinguished three classes, related to the three sources of income :

(a) owners of simple labor power or laborers whose main source of income is labor;

(b) owners of capital or capitalists whose main source of income is profit or surplus value; and

(c) landowners whose main source of income is ground rent.

In this way the class structure of modern capitalist society is composed of three major classes viz., salaried laborers or workers, capitalists and landowners. At a broader level, society could be divided into two major classes i.e. the ‘haves’ (owners of land and / or capital) often called as bourgeoisie and the ‘have-nots’ (those who own nothing but their own labor power), often called as proletariat.

Criteria for Determination of Class

For this exercise, one could say that a social class has two major criteria: (i) objective criteria (ii) subjective criteria.

i) Objective Criteria: People sharing the same relationship to the means of production comprise a class. Let us understand it through an example – all laborers have a similar relationship with the landowners. On the other hand all the landowners, as a class, have a similar relationship with the land and laborers. In this way, laborers on one hand and landowners on the other hand could be seen as classes. However, for Marx, this relationship alone is not sufficient to determine the class. According to him it is not sufficient for class to be ‘class in itself’ but it should also be class for itself. What does this mean? By ‘class in itself’ he means the objective criteria of any social class. Obviously, Marx is not simply satisfied with objective criteria above. Hence he equally emphasizes upon the other major criteria i.e., “Class for itself” or the subjective criteria.


ii) Subjective Criteria: Any collectivity or human grouping with a similar relationship would make a category, not a class, if subjective criteria are not included. The members of any one class not only have similar consciousness but they also share a similar consciousness of the fact that they belong to the same class. This similar consciousness of a class serves as the basis for uniting its members for organizing social action. Here this similar class consciousness towards acting together for their common interests is what Marx calls – “Class for itself”.



The changes in the mode of production are essentially changes in the forces of production and relations of production. In primitive communal stage there was no surplus production and hence it had no inequality and exploitation caused by the private ownership of means of production. The means of production were common property of the community. With the development and improvements in the forces of production there was increased productivity. This caused private ownership of means of production and change in the relations of production. This marked the end of primitive-communal system and thus began the long history of inequality, exploitation and class conflict, coinciding with the emergence of slave-owning society.

In the slave-owning society the class conflict between the slave owners and slaves reached a peak causing a change in the mode of production from slavery to feudalistic mode of production. Marx has said that the history of hitherto existing society is a history of class struggle. This means that the entire history of society is studded with different phases and periods of class struggle. This history of class struggle begins in the slave-owning society and continues through feudal society where this class struggle is between classes of the feudal lords and the landless agricultural laborers or serfs. Due to change in mode of production and class struggle a new stage of society i.e., capitalism replaces the age-old feudal system.

In the capitalistic mode of production the class antagonism acquires most acute dimensions. The working class movement begins to concreteise and reaches its peak. Through a class conflict between the class of capitalists and the class of industrial laborers, the capitalist system is replaced by socialism. This violent change has been termed as revolution by Marx.


Marx said that the class antagonism and subsequently the class conflict in the capitalist system will usher in socialism in place of capitalism through a revolution. Here the question arises what is the basis of this antagonism? Marx’s answer is that the contradiction between the forces and the relations of production is the basis of this antagonism. The bourgeoisie is constantly creating more powerful means of production. But the relations of production

that is, apparently, both the relations of ownership and the distribution of income are not transferred at the same rate. The capitalist mode of production is capable to produce in bulk, but despite this mass production and increase in wealth, majority of the population suffers from poverty and misery. On the other hand, there are a few families who have so much wealth that one could not even count or imagine. These stark and wide disparities create some tiny islands of prosperity in a vast ocean of poverty and misery. The onus of this disparity lies on the unequal, exploitative relations of production which distribute the produce in an unequal manner. This contradiction, according to Marx, will eventually produce a revolutionary crisis. The proletariat, which constitutes and will increasingly constitute the vast majority of the population, will become a class, that is, a social entity aspiring for the seizure of power and transformation of social relations.

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