Primer Red (Part 3): Class

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By Ramsin Canon

“Primer Red” is our political education series on some basics of radical thought and history. See Part I, on dialectical materialism, here. Part II on Alienation is here. Please share questions, suggestions and submissions for future discussions!

After the last year, I’m sure you’re all hankering for a discussion about class.

Class is central to Marxism and socialism, but it’s surprisingly hard to pin down, given how people talk about it. We don’t really have a natural language for it in America. American politicians are allergic to it; they talk about the “middle class” or “working families” but not the “working class” or “labor.” Over the last few decades, radical politics itself has drifted away from class as the central location for struggle.

It’s definitely true that the idea of “class” has undergone a lot of change, and as socialist groups tried to actually organize, they found that simplistic “class analysis” was not really up to the task in a complex society with lots of different forms of oppression.

For socialists though, class is the starting point for any analysis that ends up with “socialism” as the answer.

To understand why, let’s talk about what class isn’t. It isn’t just a way to say “income” or “education level.” These are often used to approximate class, but they aren’t the same thing as class. For Marx, class was a relation, or relationship-in-motion, more than an identity similar to being “poor” or “uneducated.” Your class is defined by your relation to the “modes of production,” or the way the stuff we need to live—the stuff of life—is created. If your relationship to these modes is selling your labor time and power for wages so you can pay for the stuff, you’re in the working class, a laborer. If you own the “means of production,”—that is, capital—and live primarily off the profit, you’re in the capitalist class.

There is such a thing as “social class” based on income, or education, or cultural habits—these are demographic categories, and they are useful for certain kinds of social, especially academic, analysis. We get this at a gut level: politicians put on a Carhartt jacket or clear brush at the ranch or awkwardly use slang; they exaggerate their humble beginnings. People obscure or exaggerate their education depending on where they want to fit in; people use certain manners or references to screen people for their class.

But this isn’t “class” in the way that radicals mean it. There are two classes based on their relationship to the modes of production; there are those who own the means and those who sell themselves to those who own the means.

In a complex system there are outliers of course. On one side, independent professionals, like lawyers or doctors, but also managers, especially corporate executives or highly-skilled specialists (like accountants), who may technically work for wages but have a level of independence laborers lack. On the other hand there is the underclass—people who live and work in non-formal economies, petty criminals, etc. But in general, this is the “class relation”: laborers who (a) have to sell enough work-time to both subsist and make a profit for (b) capitalists who live off the surplus.

The laborer has to sell their labor to live, because all of the tools that make the stuff of life is owned by another class. The individual identities of the laborers and capitalists can change—and laborers can become capitalists and vice versa—but in capitalism, the relation stays in place.

This is the struggle part of class struggle. Laborers need the tools—whether that’s land, machines, or investment dollars—to make the stuff of life. Capitalists need the labor power to set the tools working hard enough to keep the laborers alive and produce a surplus they can live off of. The struggle comes from this antagonistic nature of the “relation” the two groups have to the mode of production.

The “struggle” part of class struggle has to occur because of the nature of the class relation. It is in-born to the relation. Sometimes the struggle is severe, sometimes for lack of a better word it is chill. Coming out of a crisis, when new productive forces are unleashed or labor has more bargaining power, laborers and capitalists struggle in a more transactional, bureaucratic way. In times of crisis, when there is overproduction and hoarding, the conflict becomes radical and even bloody, as both sides fight for control over the modes of production—over the stuff of life.

It’s important to see class as a relation instead of a pure identity (like your income or education level) because the relation determines a lot, despite your income or education. Consider some of the discussion of “alienation” in the previous edition of Primer Red: the relationship to how you earned a living played a role in the “misery” experienced. Let’s consider an example:

Take two cousins, Country Cousin and City Cousin. The Country Cousin is a middling rural farmer who owns family farmland and a farmhouse, as well as some livestock facilities. She has a high school degree and has taken some courses in agriculture. She wakes up each day, and her family and a few season hands from town work to harvest specialty crops she sells to a regional produce distributor. She also sells eggs and a few times a year, pork. At the end of the year, after paying her creditor bank, her income and property taxes, her suppliers, health insurance from a rural co-op, and her workers, she holds $30,000 for herself and her family. She owns her home and her land, which she inherited as a portion of a larger family estate. Living in a rural area, her cost of living is low; after taxes and expenses, $30,000 certainly doesn’t make her rich, but her family’s most basic needs are met and she can access credit when she needs it, although life is still fairly precarious.

Her City Cousin is a nurse’s aide ten years on the job. She has an associate’s degree and a certificate in her chosen work from a city college. Her schedule is different every week. She has little control over her workplace, with layers of supervisors and managers, some of whom are tyrannical and even abusive. After taxes, she makes $30,000 a year—some of which goes to rent, some to student loan debt, some to commuting costs, some for supplemental health care.

City and Country Cousins may well have a different analysis of their struggles. City Cousin’s relation to her means of subsistence results in a different form of struggle. The details of their income and educational attainment don’t make out their class. The cousins may have a similar hate of banks and creditors, but Country Cousin is going to be very concerned about her property rights, government regulations about how she treats her seasonal employees or complies with state agricultural or environmental rules. Her relation to how she subsists leads to fundamentally different social (and ideological) concerns.

City Cousin wants workplace regulations. She wants it to be easier to unionize. She wants taxes to make commuting cheaper. She wouldn’t mind seeing rent control imposed on landowners. She wants more control at work—including telling her abusive boss to shove it. The character of her struggle results from her relation to the mode of production.

To be clear, though, both cousins may (rightly) see their problems are coming from the specific ways the capitalist system works. A small farmer is punished by the growth of big agribusiness monopolies, abusive bank and credit practices, starved governments that don’t keep up infrastructure. But her subsistence is still built on the things that the capitalist class relies on—strong property rights, market exchange of goods, and a wage system that creates profit. That matters when at times of crisis it comes time to fight for changes in the system.

“Class” is a relation to the way the stuff of life is created. It is tied up with other systems of oppression, that are more readily identifiable by fixed markers—for example, race or gender or disability. Class is distinct because it can be fluid on the individual level, but fixed as a feature of capitalism. It sets in motion a particular kind of struggle, which is in-born to the class relation. If you have to sell to someone else enough of your time both to live yourself and create enough surplus for them, you’re set in a struggle that won’t go away until the system is swept away.

This relation determines our alienation—and sets in motion the materialist dialectic that moves history.



Karl Marx, Capital Vol. I, Penguin Classics

David Harvey, Companion to Marx’s Capital, Vol. I, Verso Books

Charles Mills, From Class to Race, Rowman and Littlefield Publishers

Etienne Balibar, The Philosophy of Marx, Verso Books.