Class in Society

Photo: Aristocrat / / Jenny Rollo

Source: World Socialist Movement

Republished under a Creative Commons License.


It is common for people to think that society has always been organised in much the same way as it is now. Throughout history people have looked at the past and seen it in terms of the present. The features of our present system of society, therefore, are seen by many as being “natural” things have always been this way and they always will be. But the one constant of history is that everything changes. We live as we do today as a result of a long process of social evolution. Yesterday’s norms are today’s anachronisms.

Earlier Systems of Society

We do not know exactly how long ago human beings evolved from other species. But the evidence suggests that modern man appeared some 40-60,000 years ago. For most of that time people lived communally, through hunting and gathering. For many thousands of years there was no private property, no money, no working for wages, no stock exchange and no class divisions. People lived with and for one another. It was a system of what has often been termed ‘primitive communism’.

Private property emerged as human beings increased their control over the environment. With the development of agriculture and the production of surpluses came the concept of ownership. The state then came about to defend private property, conferring legal rights of ownership upon individuals and giving them the power to defend their rights by the use of force. Along with the emergence of property came the division of society into classes too. The first class to achieve dominance was the slave-owning class. Men and women were captured in tribal battles and then put to work as the possessions of particular individuals. Slavery, at the time, was considered natural and inevitable.

Feudalism was then strengthened and expanded in Britain with the 11th century Norman Conquest. In the feudal economy all land was nominally owned by the King. The King granted lands to his tenants-in-chief, the aristocracy, and they in return had to give military service to him and pay customary dues which comprised a percentage of their wealth. Not only did the feudal aristocracy and the church own most of the land, but they controlled the men and women who lived and worked on it. The landlords had their own courts, they levied taxes and exacted services from their serfs and, in times of war, they ordered their subjects to fight their battles. The power of the feudal lord depended on the amount of land he owned and the number of peasants he could control. Peasants had feudal obligations to their landlords: they either had to work on his land for a certain length of time each week or else they had to give him a portion of their produce in return for living on his land. Either way, the landlord received his wealth without having to work, while the toilers received just about enough to keep themselves and their families alive.

Every feudal manor had common land which the peasants had access to in order to provide for their own needs. Capitalist social relations emerged with the expropriation of this common land by the aristocracy in the 15th and 16th centuries. The lands were enclosed to be used for sheep farming rather than arable cultivation. One reason for this was that the new Flemish woollen industry made sheep more profitable tenants than peasants. Enclosure destroyed the lives of thousands of peasant families, turning them into propertyless vagabonds. In his famous work Capital, dealing with the "primitive accumulation of capital", Karl Marx wrote:

"The fathers of the present working class were chastised for their enforced transformation into vagabonds and paupers. Legislation treated them as "voluntary" criminals and assumed that it depended on their own goodwill to go on working under the old conditions that no longer existed.

Deprived of their land, their homes, their traditional surroundings and the protection of the law, the expropriated peasantry were left to sell the one thing they still possessed – their ability to work. The introduction of wage labour was the starting point of capitalism."

The Capitalist System

The historical transitions from slavery to feudalism and then from feudalism to capitalism were changes from one social system to another. A social system is a network of relationships: in slave society men and women were owned; under feudalism they were compelled to give up a proportion of what they produced; under capitalism they are hired and are given, in the form of wages and salaries, less than they produce in value. All these systems are based upon a division between those who own and control the means of producing and distributing wealth, and those who do not. Under the present system, capitalism, the means of producing and distributing wealth are owned and controlled by a minority group within society – the capitalist class. Capitalists are men and women who are characterised by owning sufficient capital (wealth invested to gain more wealth) to enable them to live without having to work. The productive and distributive resources of capitalism do not belong to everyone in society, but to those who possess the right of ownership. In Western-type capitalism – sometimes called ‘private enterprise capitalism’ or ‘the market economy’, this ownership takes the legal form of written titles and deeds. In the state-run capitalism of countries like China, Cuba, and formerly Russia, ownership is officially vested in the whole population, but in practice the minority class of bureaucrats who control the political system there control production and distribution, and by virtue of that control they also effectively enjoy the right of ownership and reap the benefits from this.

Such a right, whether in a private enterprise-type capitalism, or in state capitalism, is not obtained by merit, or virtue or hard work. Indeed, many capitalists have never been inside the factories or offices that they own. And they do not need to, for they live off the surplus derived from exploiting wage labour without ever having to do work themselves.

Exploitation means that workers receive in the form of wages or salaries less than the value of the goods and services they produce. It is this unpaid labour of the working class which, taking a monetary form, is the source of the wealth and privileged income of the capitalist class. In the private enterprise economy this income takes the form of rent, interest and profit, while under state-run capitalism it tends to take the form of hugely bloated "salaries", bonuses, special privileges such as imported luxuries, and a whole variety of payments in kind. In both varieties of capitalism the essential features are the same: a class monopoly of the means of producing wealth, the operation of a wages system, production of goods and services for sale and profit, and the further accumulation of capital out of this profit.

Production for profit in capitalism means that human needs will invariably come second to the need to obtain a profit. If food cannot be produced with an expectation of profit it will not be produced at all or, if it is produced and then cannot be sold at a profit, it will be stockpiled, dumped or destroyed. In India, where millions are perpetually hungry, soldiers are employed to guard grain mountains of many millions of tons. Starving people, with no money to spend, do not constitute "effective demand" under capitalism. If you lack money you are denied access to the basic necessities of life. You may have ideas or initiative or desires, but if you are broke you must go without. Capitalists have money to buy what they need because workers produce their rents, their bank interest and their dividends for them. Most workers, even in Britain, rarely have enough money to satisfy more than their
everyday needs.

Class Struggle

Capitalism also generates conflict. It makes workers compete against one another and often divides them into competing groups. But the main conflict in capitalist society is between the class interests of the capitalists and the class interests of the workers. These interests are essentially antagonistic. The capitalists, who directly or indirectly control the media, the education system and the major political parties, try to camouflage this conflict. They pretend that there are no classes, that we are all one national family, that we are all in our rightful places, that buying and selling, working for wages and production for profit are as natural as the sun and the moon. Many people believe them, but experience does not support this belief, for historically workers have had to respond to their class condition by forming trade unions to negotiate with their employers over the price of the mental and physical energies they sell. This is a necessary defensive measure, but a severely limited one. To leave all the productive machinery in the hands of the capitalist class and then to demand higher wages and better conditions of employment from that class is to negotiate from a position of permanent weakness. It is to negotiate about the terms of exploitation rather than to strive to end it.

The class struggle is not a romantic battle which is entered into by heroic warriors, as self-styled "left-wingers" like to imagine. In fact, we are all in the class struggle whether we like it or not. Every time we moan in the pub about unemployment going up, complain to our neighbours that the mortgage payments or rent have increased, or we decide to go on strike or hold a public meeting to air a grievance, we are responding to our class condition. Every time a politician or industrialist calls for greater productivity or repressive laws designed to maintain ‘order’, they too are participating in the class struggle – on the other side.

Not only is there a battle between classes however. There is also one within classes. And it is not only workers who are often disunited and weakened as a class. Capitalists are divided too – into nation states, economic blocs and military alliances. And their competition over markets, raw materials and strategic positions often breaks out into open and bloody battle. International warfare is one of the most horrific and tragic consequences of capitalism and capitalism today has become a system of permanent warfare. These wars are not fought over pious ideals like justice, nationhood, democracy or religion. They are fought over power and control related to the need of capitalists for markets, sources of raw materials, investment outlets, trade routes and the strategic positions to defend all these. Workers have no interest in such objectives, yet in this century alone millions of lives have been lost fighting for them.

Scarcity or Abundance?

All this may seem unduly critical of the capitalist system. After all, has it not been responsible for building up technology to the point where we now have a potential abundance of wealth? But, for the working class, in the present age of potential plenty, rationing by the money system is an outdated way of distributing goods. In an age when we could produce for use without anyone going short, producing for sale and profit is an obstacle to the real satisfaction of human needs and desires.

Compared with the natural scarcity of previous ages, the scarcity that exists in the 21st century is artificial. Advances in agriculture, science and technology have made it quite possible to produce enough – indeed an abundance – for every man, woman and child on the planet. And yet millions of people are starving, and the majority of the world's population lives in varying degrees of poverty. Meanwhile the production of food is often cut back; produce is stockpiled or destroyed, farmers are paid to stop producing, but almost nothing is done for the millions who are starving. This is not because the capitalists who own the food are wicked, selfish people (though some of them may be), and it is pointless for religious and other moralists to keep calling for a change of heart. It is because the present world economic system is incapable of feeding those who cannot afford to pay.

If food were to be given away in large quantities, prices would collapse. There is therefore no possibility of solving such problems while capitalism lasts, The only basis on which the powers of production developed under capitalism can be used for the benefit of all is if the means of producing for our needs become the common property of the whole community, under democratic control. Since capitalism is already a world system, so must socialism be. Socialism thus entails the free association of the world's people. This global community will make arrangements to use the world's resources to produce wealth solely and directly to satisfy needs and desires.

This will mean an end to wage labour (that is, selling one's ability to work in order to gain some access to wealth), an end to separate countries and separate “firms”, an end to money and all forms of exchange. Instead people will have free access to all available goods and services according to their own self-defined needs.



Freedom – Equality – Solidarity


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