Marxist Theory and Capitalist Class Structures

Russell Haggar

Site Owner

Marxist Theory and Capitalist Class Structures

 20/07/2020: Date Last Edited

Click here for a detailed Guardian article on Marxism by Yanis Varoufakis  April 2018

Click here for a long interview with Erik Olin Wright [ Very useful if you require detailed information ] April 2018

Click here for the website of Erik Olin Wright and here for a recent article by Erik Olin Wright .  Via these links you will find some of Erik  Olin Wright's detailed contributions to the development of Neo-Marxist scholarship. Erik Olin Wright passed away in January 2019. [R.I.P.]. [Advanced Level Sociology students approaching the study of Marxism for the first time should begin with more introductory explanations of Marxist theories before consideration of Professor Wright's work which is, however,   mentioned explicitly in the  Stratification and Differentiation option within the AQA syllabus although for examination purposes students should concentrate on Professor Wright's models of the capitalist class structure which are mentioned in the main textbooks. You may also click here for a little information on these models.]

Click here for recent article on Private Education and Elite Occupations  October 2017

Click here for Gramsci and Neo-Marxism: An Introduction.  October 2017

Click here for series of podcasts from Steve Bassett on theories of Social stratification including Marxist and Neo- Marxist Theories   January 2017

Click here for Introducing Marxism. January 2017

Click here for a PowerPoint: Introducing Marxist Theories of the State 

Click here for a 1977 TV documentary on Karl Marx presented by famous Harvard economist J. K. Galbraith[1908-2006]. [From YouTube]  October 2012

Click here and here for Open University resources on Karl Marx  October 2012

Click here for an assignment on Marxism  October 2012

Click here and scroll down for information on Antonio Gramsci. This site constructed by Ryan Katz -Rosene contains interesting information on a range of progressive thinkers and activists.  March 2013

Click here for a series of audio lectures with slides on Antonio Gramsci presented by Professor Bob Jessop.for a series of audio lectures with slides on Antonio Gramsci presented by Professor Bob Jessop. April 2020

Click here for some introductory information on Antonio Gramsci and Neo-Marxism  September 2017

Click here for an article on Ralph Miliband's The State in Capitalist Society December 2018


  • Introduction
  • Marx and  C19th Century Capitalism
  • Bourgeoisie and Proletariat
  • Economic Base and Superstructure
  • Marx and the Transition from Capitalism to Socialism
  • Marxism and Contemporary Capitalism
  • Post-Capitalist Theories
  • Modern Marxism, the Rejection of Post-Capitalist Theories and  Dominant Economic Class
  • Modern Marxism and the Middle Class
  • Modern Marxism and the Working Class
  • Assignment: Evaluation of Marxist Class TheoriesIntroduction


Karl Marx [1818-1883] spent his entire adult life constructing theories of historical change based around the notion of historical materialism which he developed in response to the historical idealism associated with the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel. In the Marxist theory the central aspects of human behaviour involved the need to produce goods and services in order to survive and so Marx looked for the motor of historical change in the process of production. This led him to argue that all societies could be described in terms of their mode of production  and that  changes in their mode of production brought about by contradictions between the so-called forces of production and the social relations of production. Thus Marx claimed in some of his early work that historical change involved the transformation of modes of production from primitive communism to ancient society to feudalism to capitalism and that  the final future transformation from capitalism to socialism and subsequently communism was historically inevitable based as it was on scientific laws of historical development which Marx claimed to have discovered. However in later life he argued that the transition from capitalism to socialism might well vary according to the different circumstances operating in different countries suggesting that he no longer saw his theories as uncovering general processes of transition which were identical and scientifically inevitable in all capitalist countries. [Marx noted also that in Asia a different sequence was possible in that Primitive communism had been transformed into the Asiatic mode of production.]

Marx' overall theories of historical change will be described later in a future  document. In this document I shall concentrate on the original Marxist analysis of the c19th capitalist class structure, on more recent developments of Marxist class theories and on the evaluation of these theories. In so doing I shall refer also to Marxist theories of the state and briefly to non-Marxist approaches to the analysis of class structure but these ideas will be considered in more detail in  separate documents eventually.

Click here and follow the appropriate links if you would like to watch to the comedian Mark Steel's amusing take on Marxism [from Youtube ...where else?]

Click here for the History Guide account of the life and work of Karl Marx.

  • Marx and C19th Capitalism

Marx and his colleague Engels believed that the transition from feudalism to capitalism and the associated rise to economic and political dominance of the Bourgeoisie would result in the decline of conservative traditions and to increasing economic efficiency as capitalist principles were increasingly applied on a national and international scale. Marx and Engels believed that capitalism should be allowed to develop because it would create the scientific, technological and economic potential  necessary for higher living standards for all but capitalism also contained the seeds of its own destruction because  it was also a grossly unfair, unjust system in which the poor were exploited at every turn by the rich and whose organisation actually prevented the full development and effective use of tits massive economic resources in the interests of all of the members of capitalist societies. Marxist criticisms of capitalism and his  ideas provided much of the theoretical backing for the revolutionary movements which seized power in Russia, China, Cuba and elsewhere. The main elements of the Marxist analysis of 19th Century capitalism  may be summarised as follows.

  • Bourgeoisie and Proletariat

 Capitalist societies can be divided into two major social classes : the Bourgeoisie and the Proletariat. The Bourgeoisie own the means of production [ the land, factories, machinery, raw materials and commercial organisations which are used to produce goods and services] whereas the Proletariat own little or no property and work for wages . In Marx' best known class theory intermediate classes did exist but they were either fragments of the two main classes or remnants of feudalism which would disappear in a process of class polarisation which would see their members either rise into the Bourgeoisie or fall into the Proletariat. However in his later work Marx recognised that the growth of joint stock companies would increase the number of white collar jobs which could be seen as middle class although he still did not analyse this grouping in any detail.

 The Bourgeoisie and the Proletariat are dependent upon each other in that the Bourgeoisie need the Proletariat to produce the gods and services from which the Bourgeoisie derive their profits while the Proletariat are dependent on the Bourgeoisie for the provision of work and income without which they cannot survive. However the relationship between the two classes is based also upon exploitation and conflict. The Proletariat (the working class) are poorly paid, work long hours in dangerous conditions doing repetitive mind-numbing work causing what Marx described as Alienation; they are poorly housed, poorly educated and in bad health.  They are exploited in the sense that they are paid in wages less than the value of the goods and services which they produce which enables the Bourgeoisie to derive large profits from the production process at the expense of the proletariat who earn low wages exactly because the Bourgeoisie are exploiting them in order to secure large profits.

According to Marx individuals are naturally creative beings with the capacity for self-fulfilment in their work which would in ideal circumstances provide opportunities for individual creativity and work satisfaction  as workers recognise that they are producing goods and services which meet real human needs. However although Marx recognised that the development of capitalism led to technological improvement with the potential  for fuller human self-development the actual organisation of capitalism has inhibited the liberating potential of improved technology.

Instead , according to Marx, under capitalism the members of the proletariat ,far from experiencing self-fulfilment in their work, actually experience various kinds of alienation or estrangement  from the products that they produce, from the productive process, from their own "species being" [that is  from their own creative nature] and from other workers. Click here for a a YouTube clip of Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times. Interesting....   and funny.

  1. Under capitalism it is the capitalists, motivated by the desire for profit rather than the desire to meet real human needs who decide which goods and services will be produced and  the prices at which they will be sold. The workers  must accept that it is the capitalists rather than themselves who determine the ultimate purpose of production : i.e. profit  so that the workers are said to be alienated from the goods and services which they have actually produced. [It must be recognised that in many cases goods produced for profit do also meet real human need  but that in other cases it is the creation of false needs via advertising which help to generate profit.]
  2. Under capitalism workers have little or no overall control over the production process which is often based upon the division of labour involving the breaking down of the production process into a series of simple repetitive and boring tasks which give no opportunity for worker creativity. It has been said that under conditions of modern capitalism many workers exercise more skill driving to work [if they can afford a car] than in their daily work while in Marx's analysis of C19th capitalism work becomes a means to an end [earning the money necessary to survive] rather than an end in itself and "as soon as there is no physical or other compulsion men flee from labour like the plague."
  3. Under capitalism because workers have no control over the ultimate purpose of production, the destination of the goods and services they produce  and the organisation  of actual production processes they are said to be alienated from their own species being: that is they are denied the opportunity to fulfil themselves in creative, socially useful work.
  4. They are alienated also  from other people in capitalist society. The capitalists perceive their workers not as individuals with a wide range of interesting and positive human characteristics but merely as sources of labour power to be exploited in the pursuit of profit while in the wider society workers are defined in terms of their occupation rather than they own individuality and workers will usually see other workers  as competitors for scarce employment rather than as collaborators in a socially useful production process. And even capitalists may themselves experience alienation as they sometimes recognise that the production processes which they own and control is , in several respects destructive of human happiness and welfare.
  5. Nevertheless according to Marx workers will gradually  the sources of their own exploitation and collaborate in the abolition of capitalism which will result also in the abolition of alienation. Of course there is little evidence that worker alienation ended in the factories of the former USSR but Marx if alive, would have denied that the USSR was a communist society.
  6. It has been argued that  under conditions of advanced capitalism there are greater opportunities for worker satisfaction especially for skilled manual workers in high technology industries which require workers to use considerable individual autonomy and judgement  although others have argued that these trends have been overstated. Students wishing to pursue these arguments could begin by consulting the theories of Robert Blauner and Harry Braverman.
  7. The concept of alienation might also be applied to other aspects of society: students might feel alienated at school; individuals might feel alienated from a political process which denies them real political influence; from remote private and public sector bureaucracies and from the sometimes less than stimulating products of the "entertainment" industries. There is a lot to think about here!

 It follows according to Marx that class conflict between the Bourgeoisie and the Proletariat is endemic in the capitalist system because it is in the interests of the Bourgeoisie to restrict wages and increase the intensity of work in order to increase profits while the Proletariat wish to increase wages and reduce the intensity of work in order to improve their working and living standards. This fundamental conflict between the Bourgeoisie would sometimes erupt into large scale strikes and demonstrations but at other times remain relatively muted but  Marxists believe that ultimately the Bourgeoisie and the Proletariat are set on a collision course destined to result in the abolition of the capitalist system.

 Diagrammatically we can summarise the relationships between the Bourgeoisie and the Proletariat  as follows.


The property-owning Bourgeoisie are the economically dominant class, and, also, since they are said to exercise direct and indirect influence over the state (which may, however, act with some relative autonomy) they are also a politically dominant ruling class. Their dominance rest partly on their capacity to use force, but more significantly, because they can engineer the consent of the Proletariat partly by granting political and economic concession to them, and partly by the operation of a socialisation process which disseminates a powerful ruling class ideology. Ultimately however, the Proletariat will develop their own class consciousness, rise up overthrow the Bourgeoisie and the Capitalist State and usher in a classless, socialist utopia.

  • Economic Base and Superstructure

Marx also distinguishes between the Economic Base and the Superstructure of capitalist society. In capitalist society the Economic Base is such that production is increasingly organised in large companies with the aim of securing profits which in turn result in the exploitation of the Proletariat in the interest of the Bourgeoisie. By the Superstructure Marx means the political, legal, religion and education systems, the mass media and the organisation of family life and Marx then argues that the Economic Base of society will heavily influence the organisation and operation of its Superstructure and that the institutions of the Superstructure will operate so as to  maintain the dominance of the capitalist class within the economic base. [Thus in some AS Sociology Modules we have already seen how in Marxist theories of the Family, the Mass Media  and the Education Systems these institutions help to sustain the capitalist economy, and the State also is assumed to operate in the interests of the Bourgeoisie, although perhaps with some relative autonomy.]

The Marxist theory of the relationship between Economic Base (or Infrastructure) and Superstructure may be outlined diagrammatically as follows:

This aspect of Marxism has aroused considerable theoretical controversy in that the extent to which the economic base determines the organisation and operation of the superstructure in Marxist theories is a little uncertain. The theories may be taken to imply that the economic base determines the nature of the superstructure or that  the economic base heavily influences the superstructure and critics have argued that the former version of the theory exposes Marxism to the criticism that it is excessively economic determinist and understates the extent to which institutions of the superstructure may operate independently of the economic base . Later neo-Marxist theorists such as  the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci have emphasised the extent to which  that influences may well flow from the superstructure to the economic base as well from the economic base to the superstructure.

Click here for a series of audio lectures with slides on Antonio Gramsci presented by Professor Bob Jessop. These are very detailed informative resources.  March 2015

This aspect of Marxism has aroused considerable theoretical controversy in that the extent to which the economic base determines the organisation and operation of the superstructure in Marxist theories is a little uncertain. The theories may be taken to imply that the economic base determines the nature of the superstructure or that  the economic base heavily influences the superstructure and critics have argued that the former version of the theory exposes Marxism to the criticism that it is excessively economic determinist and understates the extent to which institutions of the superstructure may operate independently of the economic base . Later neo-Marxist theorists such as  the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci have emphasised the extent to which  that influences may well flow from the superstructure to the economic base as well from the economic base to the superstructure.

Click here for some introductory information on Antonio Gramsci and Neo-Marxism  September 2017

Disregarding for the time being the controversies surrounding the issue of economic determinism it is argued in the Marxist view that under the conditions of 19th Century Capitalism the institutions of the superstructure  helped to sustain the Bourgeoisie's ownership and control within the Economic base via the following processes.

  • The Bourgeoisie were the economically dominant class as a result of their ownership and control of the means of production but they were also a politically dominant Ruling Class because virtually all of the political leaders were drawn from the Bourgeoisie  and espoused the ideologies of conservatism or liberalism which ensured that they would pass legislation sympathetic to the continued economic domination of the capitalist class to which they  themselves belonged .
  • Although some limited reforms were introduced in the course of the 19th century which gradually improved  working class working and living conditions. none of these reforms  challenged the dominance of the capitalist class and Marxists [and others] argued that such reforms as were enacted were designed primarily to reduce the likelihood of more radical challenges to the capitalist system as a whole..
  • Thus, for example laws were passed which strongly protected private property and very heavy penalties were imposed for minor thefts, with little  account taken of mitigating circumstances of possibly extreme poverty.
  • Meanwhile the Proletariat were inadequately unrepresented within the political system. Some working class males were granted the vote as a result of the Third Reform Act of 1884 but  even after gaining the vote they had to hope that their interests would  be represented fairly and adequately by the Conservative or Liberal parties since  MPs of the Independent Labour Party and the Labour Representation Committee [a precursor of the Labour Party] were not elected to Parliament until 1893 and 1900 respectively and the Labour Party itself was not founded until 1918. Universal male suffrage was granted in 1918 and universal female suffrage was granted in 1928.
  •  Trade unions for most of the c19th remained  relatively weak partly because of legislation which reduced their abilities to organise and defend their members .
  • The economic and political dominance of the Bourgeoisie was sustained further because powerful processes of political socialisation involving family, school, church and mass media spread a ruling class ideology which indoctrinated the Proletariat to accept that despite the class inequalities generated by capitalism it nevertheless offered the best hope of material progress for the Proletariat and that it was both inevitable and desirable that economic and political power should be monopolised by the Bourgeoisie and its political representatives who alone possessed the wisdom to organise the system in the interests of all, including the poor.
  • The poor, therefore should "know their place" and accept it with good grace. Marx, however, believed that the ruling class ideology created a false class consciousness among the proletariat which prevented them from recognising the source in the capitalist system itself of their exploitation.
  • However Marx also believed that the Proletariat would eventually see through the lies of the ruling class ideology, be transformed from a "class in itself to a class for itself ,throw of their false class consciousness and overthrow the Bourgeoisie through revolutionary means and initiate the transition from capitalism to a future classless socialist [and subsequently communist ]utopia in which the class exploitation and human alienation associated with the capitalist system would be ended and all citizens would have the opportunities to develop their human capacities to the full.
 Economic Base and Superstructure: An Example from the Marxist Analysis of Formal Education SystemsMarxist analyses of 20th Century formal education systems have drawn on the general Economic Base- Superstructure model to suggest that the organisation of formal education systems [=part of the superstructure ] helps to sustain the dominance of the capitalist class within the economic base.

The Marxist  Althusser distinguishes between  Ideological State Apparatuses [ISAs] and Repressive State Apparatuses [RPAs]. Repressive State Apparatuses such as the police, courts , penal system and the military will be called upon to sustain the powers of the capitalist class  by force if the ISAs fail to do so by means of persuasion. ISAs include the family, the church , the mass media and the formal education system and these are institutions which act to communicate to us not a set of norms and values which are based upon consensus because they are beneficial  to the individual members of society but to communicate a ruling class ideology which benefits the rich powerful Bourgeoisie at the expense of the poorer less powerful Proletariat.

Althusser argues  that along with other institutions of the superstructure schools as  ideological state apparatuses  operate in ways designed to sustain ideological support for the capitalist system, the capitalist state and the capitalist class structure. With regard to formal education it is claimed  that the Hidden Curriculum operates to restrict criticism of the capitalist system  and to prepare upper, middle and working class pupils for their future employment roles in mainly upper, middle and working class jobs respectively thereby helping to ensure the reproduction of capitalist class structures.

Very similar arguments are used by Marxists Bowles and Gintis in their study in Schooling in Capitalist America[1976] where they produced a so-called correspondence theory in which  the organisation of the education system corresponds in several ways to the organisation of the capitalist industrial system and helps to prepare students for entry into that system. Acceptance of school authority and rules encourages uncritical acceptance in adult life of authority, laws and pro-capitalist norms and values in later life; and the schools' emphasis on hard work, ambition, individual competitiveness, punctuality, and the necessity to perform uninteresting tasks and even the undesirability of critical thinking helps to create exactly the type of worker demanded b the capitalist system.

Furthermore Bowles and Gintis argued that the often heard claims that pupils are evaluated and graded meritocratically and therefore fairly via the use of tests  and examinations is simply a gigantic myth designed to mislead pupils into a belief that when individuals are allocated to poorly paid and well paid jobs respectively this too is fair and meritocratic so that any criticism of either the school system or differences in employment incomes is unjustified. Also, ironically, the fact that a minority of working class pupils are educationally successful and upwardly socially mobile creates a false impression of fairness  yet for Marxists,  the capitalist system is grossly unfair and the education system helps to prevent people from realising this and trying to change it. Once again the formal education system helps to ensure that the capitalist class structure is reproduced.

Bowles and Gintis have provided a powerful Marxist critique of formal education systems but their work also attracted important criticisms. Thus it was claimed that many individual teachers aim to treat their pupils fairly and equally and to provide opportunities for them to develop their capacities to the full; that teachers are not necessarily strong supporters of the capitalist system so that the Hidden Curriculum could in principle be designed to support critical thinking; and that even if the Hidden Curriculum was organised to create unthinking submissiveness there was absolutely no guarantee that pupils would internalise submissive attitudes as indicated in studies by Paul Willis and others that the absolute opposite was more likely.

However the Marxist analysis can also be extended by applying the concept of "relative autonomy" to the analysis of formal education systems leading to the conclusions that that  formal education systems are more independent of the capitalist economic system than Marxists such as Bowles and Gintis suppose but that they are nevertheless constrained by the overall structures of capitalism. For example, teachers may have some relative autonomy to encourage critical thinking and collaborative rather than competitive attitudes among their students but these same teachers at the same time are constrained by examination syllabi and the pressures to ensure examination success to limit their discussions of crucial social issues and to emphasise individualistic and competitive approaches to learning so that their autonomy is only "relative" in the sense that it must operate within the constraints of an education system which is itself heavily geared to the requirements of capitalism. You may wish to discuss the concept of relative autonomy with your teachers.

Also of course Functionalists and New Right theorists especially would reject the Marxist analysis of capitalism and of formal education systems within the capitalist system.

  • Marx and the Transition from Capitalism to Socialism

In Marxist theory all transitions from one mode of production occur because of the development of fundamental contradictions between the forces of production and the social relations of production so that in order to analyse the transition from the Capitalist mode of production to the Socialist mode of production we have to analyse the possible conflicts between the forces of production and the social relations of production in some detail.

According to Marx the conflict between the forces of production and the relations of production involves the following elements.

  1. The capitalist system is owned and controlled  by the Bourgeoisie whose main aim is production for profit rather than production for need. This means that the social relations of production (ownership and control) prevent the full utilisation of the highly developed forces of production. which could be used to meet the real needs humanity but are instead used to increase the profits of the Bourgeoisie at the expense of the Proletariat.
  2. Since the Proletariat are inevitably exploited under capitalism  they do not receive a fair share of the goods and services produced via the forces of production.
  3. Capitalism results inevitably in periodic unemployment meaning  that the factories and workers are often idle despite the obvious need for increased production so that, again the full potential of the forces of production is not being realised under capitalism because of the social relations of production which exist under capitalism.
  4. Capitalism results in alienation which means that the full potential of the workers cannot be realised under capitalism.

Thus, in summary, according to Marx, the social relations of production under capitalism prevent the full development of the forces of production under capitalism and the contradictions between the forces of production and the social relations of production will result ultimately in the abolition of the capitalist mode of production. The following factors lead to the acceleration of the revolutionary process.

  1. The development of capitalism results in increasing urbanisation and the concentration of workers in large factories means that the political organisation of the Proletariat becomes easier.
  2. Marx suggested in his Immiseration theory that capitalism would result in increasing poverty which would accelerate the decline of false class consciousness and the development of revolutionary class consciousness among the Proletariat.
  3. Marx suggested that under capitalism production would be  increasingly concentrated among large companies and smaller companies and individual traders would be forced out of business meaning that intermediate social classes would contract and the overall  class structure would increasingly be simplified into two  great classes--- the Bourgeoisie and the Proletariat. This was Marx' so-called Polarisation thesis which implied that even former members of the Bourgeoisie might develop revolutionary class consciousness. However in his later theories  Marx noted that the growth of joint stock companies would lead to the growth of managerial positions, implying the growth of a middle class, and it has been suggested that Marx did not sufficiently analyse the implications of the growth of the middle class for his theory of revolution. We shall return to neo-Marxist analyses of the middle class later in this document.
  4. The revolution was to be followed by a series of stages leading to the eventual achievement of the classless, communist society. First would come the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat in which the capitalist state would be taken over by the leaders of the proletariat in order to restrict the powers of the opponents of revolution to organise counter-revolution. Private property would be abolished and the revolution would then enter its socialist phase in which resources would be distributed from each according to his/her ability to each according to his/her work which implied that economic equality would still be necessary to provide economic incentives. This would be followed by the gradual transition from socialism to communism in which resources would be allocated from each according to his/her ability to each according to his/her need implying a very high level of economic equality of outcome.
  5. The abolition of private property meant that in the Marxist scheme social classes had been abolished and this would mean that the state [which under capitalism was an instrument of class rule] could wither away although there would still be a need for some form of administrative apparatus to organise society at a national level. Thus according to the Marxists the revolution would eventually lead  to the creation of a classless, very equal, free, prosperous and cooperative society.

However Marx also suggested that that in countries such as America and England  where liberal democracy seemed likely to flourish a parliamentary road to socialism might be possible , a view supported by Marx' colleague Engels  who outlived Marx by many years and witnessed what he believed to be the increasingly significant developments of liberal democracy in the late C19th and early C20th.

Further important theoretical and practical issues  arose  in the case of the Russian revolution where important modifications to the Marxist theory were suggested by Lenin who argued that in the case of Russia it would be necessary to create a small vanguard party of revolutionaries to advance the revolution rather than to wait for the further development of capitalism to create the conditions for revolution as suggested in orthodox Marxist theory. Lenin and others did create such a party [the Russian Social Democratic party] and Lenin’s faction of this party [the Bolsheviks]  did play a central crucial role in advancing revolution in Russia.

In practice, however, the actual outcome of the Russian Revolution was not as hoped for in the Marxist schema. Far from withering away the USSR state quickly came to be a One Party state dominated by the Bolshevik Party and subsequently by its leader Stalin [who replaced Lenin as leader of the Bolsheviks in 1924] who soon came to believe that it would be necessary to purge thousands of his opponents from the Bolshevik Party via imprisonment or execution .The USSR economy was at this time extremely underdeveloped and Stalin embarked upon the collectivisation of agriculture and rapid industrialisation programmes in an attempt to modernise the economy all of which resulted in severe hardship for the Russian people as collectivisation led to reduced food output and industrialisation resulted in the allocation of resources to the construction of factories and machinery rather than consumer goods. The erosion of liberal democratic civil liberties and millions of deaths under the autocratic leadership of Stalin dealt a severe blow to the credibility of Marxist ideology but Marxists argued that Stalinism in practice bore no relationship to how Socialism was supposed to operate in theory.

It is clear, that the USSR did industrialise very rapidly but at the cost of great hardship to its people in the short and medium term whose political rights were very limited and living standards poor although party leaders and officials continued to enjoy a privileged life style as a result of their political power. such that some theorists argued that the abolition of capitalism in the USSR had in fact resulted in the creation of a "New Class" of senior Communist Party officials who ruled at the expense of the still very disadvantaged USSR working class.  The Stalinist political system was reformed to some extent after Stalin’s death but it was clear that by the 1980s further reforms were still necessary. However when leader Gorbachev began to introduce more significant reforms in the late 1980s rising expectations in the USSR resulted in the so-called “End of Communism “  and the disintegration of the USSR in the 1990s.

Furthermore the apparent failure of the Soviet system and the implementation by the nominally Communist Chinese leadership of capitalist- style economic reforms were seized upon especially  by opponents of Marxism as evidence that socialism and communism had become discredited impractical ideologies  and that the capacities of liberal capitalism to generate higher living standards and to guarantee civil liberties absent in former Communist regimes demonstrated the fundamental superiority of liberal capitalism relative to Communism.  By the late 1980s the prospects of socialist revolution in Western capitalist countries appeared virtually non-existent , a situation which continues in 2009 as, for example, the UK electorate awaits its opportunity to choose three main political parties none of which offers a remotely socialist programme.

[I have omitted any consideration of the implications of Marxist theory for the development of "Third World" socialism although it is very clear that modifications to Marxist theory in which  the rural peasantry rather than the urban proletariat would play an important revolutionary role had very important implications for example in China, Cuba and Vietnam. It is clear also that insofar as the more affluent sections of the working classes in advanced capitalist countries enjoy relatively high living standards they do so partly as a result of the gross exploitation of workers in "Third World" countries again suggesting the ongoing relevance of the Marxist analysis of international capitalism. Of course neo-liberal supporters of globalisation would continue to deny the validity of Marxist analyses of the globalisation process arguing instead that the benefits of neo-liberal economic organisation will eventually trickle down to the poor. You may be studying these issues in a separate Sociology Module.]


  • Marxism and Contemporary Capitalism .

Supporters of Marxism certainly believed that it provided a powerful and accurate analysis of 19th Century capitalism which was characterised by mass economic inequality and dreadful working and living conditions for members of the proletariat. Modern Marxists would argue that in the UK as in other advanced capitalist societies a dominant economic  class continues to exist deriving  its income mainly from its investments. However there are disputes s to the size and characteristics of this dominant economic class in that, for example writers as J.Westergaard and H. Ressler [Class in a Capitalist Society 1976]argue that this class represents perhaps 5%-10% of the UK  population whereas J. Scott (who acknowledges the influences of both Marx and Weber on his work) emphasises the importance of a much smaller capitalist class of perhaps 0.1% of the population which exercises strategic control over major decisions within the economic and financial systems.  Despite these disputes within Marxism all modern Marxists would agree that a dominant economic class exists citing trend data on the distribution of wealth and income. indicating only limited egalitarian redistribution in the course of the twentieth and early 21st centuries.

However Marxist ideas have obviously attracted criticism from both conservatives and liberals and also from more moderate socialists and social democrats. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries the German Social Democrat " revisionist" politician Eduard Bernstein called for a revision of social democratic political strategies to take account of social and political developments such as the growth of the middle classes and his ideas  were later extended and elaborated by  so-called post- capitalist theorists of the 1950s and 1960s who argued that even if the Marxist theory outlined above appeared relevant to the analysis of 19th Century capitalism it was nevertheless largely irrelevant to the analysis of mid 20th Century capitalism which had evolved in directions not predicted by Marx into a post-capitalist system fundamentally different form the C19th capitalism analysed in Marxist theories.

  • Post-Capitalist Theories

According to the post -capitalist theorists of the 1950s and 1960s  there were important trends toward greater economic equality between the social classes and also that the economic and political powers of the capitalist class had been significantly reduced. Thus in the post-capitalist view the economic powers of the capitalist class had declined, as major industries were taken over by the State in the1940s and 5Os (although the privatisation programme of the 1980s and 90s reversed this trend) and because control over private industry was passing from shareholders to specialist managers and technicians who, it was argued, would run industry not only in the interests of the owners but also in the interests of themselves, their workers and the consumer. This was the so-called "managerial revolution" or the "divorce of ownership from control".

Further, the post-capitalist theorists argued, although a politically dominant ruling class might well have existed in Marx' own time, by the 1950s theories of democratic pluralism suggested that political power was increasingly evenly distributed and that as a result  the rise of trade unions and Socialist/Social Democratic political parties, it could certainly not be monopolised by one rich economically dominant class. In the theory of Democratic Pluralism, it is argued that power is widely distributed among several political parties, many pressure groups and among citizens who have votes in regular general elections  and within the overall political s system, the State is seen as neutral rather than systematically favouring one particular interest (e.g. the capitalist class) at the expense of all other interests. as is suggested in Marxist theory. There are important studies by Dahl, Hewitt and Grant and Marsh  which give some support to the Democratic Pluralist theory but it has also attracted several criticisms. [I shall not assess the strengths and weaknesses of Democratic Pluralist theories here but you must familiarise yourselves with them especially if you are also studying a Power and Politics Module.]

The post capitalist theorists claimed that the overall class structures of capitalist societies was changing with the relative growth of the middle class and the skilled sections of the working class and the relative decline of the unskilled sections of the working class Some theorists suggested that the skilled sections of the working class were becoming increasingly affluent and experiencing a process of embourgeoisement : i.e. they were becoming increasingly able to adopt middle class life styles and as  a result were increasingly likely also to adopt middle class attitudes and values, including ,perhaps an increased tendency to vote Conservative rather than Labour.

In addition maintenance of full employment and the expanded scope of the Welfare State meant that economic inequality as measured by the distribution of income and wealth was declining, that absolute poverty had virtually disappeared and that equality of educational opportunity was now  likely to increase as a result of the expansion and reform of state education. Thus whereas Marx had predicted the polarisation of the class structure and the immiseration of the proletariat, post capitalist theorists argued that class divisions were declining and overall working class living standards were improving significantly all of which undermined the Marxist theory that the state is controlled indirectly by the property owning Bourgeoisie and made Marxist theories of revolution appear increasingly unrealistic.

  • Modern Marxism , the Rejection of Post-Capitalist Theories and the Dominant Economic Class

Modern Marxists have however rejected all of these post-capitalist arguments and argued that a modernised form of Marxist theory still offers the best theoretical framework for the analysis of contemporary capitalist societies. One of the best known reassertions of the continued relevance of Marxist theory was provided by Ralph Miliband in his study "The State in Capitalist Society" [ 1969].

Click here for an article on Ralph Miliband's The State in Capitalist Society  December 2018

Miliband makes the following arguments most of which would be accepted by most contemporary Marxists.

  • The conclusions  of the Managerial Revolution were inaccurate because even if large companies were increasingly controlled by their senior managers rather than their owners  there would be no significant  change in business practices because of the similarities of class background (and, by implication) of attitudes and values of managers and owners, because managers often own large amounts of shares and because other company survival and growth depends ultimately on high profitability.
  • Nationalisation had not reduced the power of the capitalist class because generous compensation had been given, because the profitable sector of private industry had not been nationalised and because nationalised industries recruited managers from private industry who followed broadly similar business objectives. Nationalised industries might even subsidise private profit from time to time.
  • Changes in the UK capitalist class structure had been far less significant than suggested by post-capitalist theorists:
    • it was claimed by Marxists and others that any redistribution of income and wealth which had occurred during the first half of the 20th Century was mainly between the rich and the comfortably off (and often members of the same families), with little improvement in the relative position of the poor;
    • even if the skilled sections of the working class had become more affluent they remained significantly worse of than most members of the middle class and had not by the mid 1960s at least significantly changed their attitudes and values;
    • Abel-Smith and Townsend had demonstrated that poverty at least in a relative sense, had not been eliminated by the Welfare State which, in any case, according to Marxists and others operated as an important agency of social control;
    • social class differences in educational achievement remained significant and the chances that working class people might be upwardly socially mobile into the upper class were far smaller than the chances that people born into the upper class would remain there; members of the dominant economic class could relatively easily pass on wealth, power and privilege to their children therefore facilitating the social reproduction of the capitalist class structure from generation to generation.

Thus, MiIiband concluded, a dominant economic class continued to exist and to exercise economic power in the private sector and he then argued also that this dominant economic class was also a politically dominant ruling class which exercised decisive power over the State such that the capitalist state served the interests of the dominant class usually at the expense of the rest of the population. Miliband  argued that the theory of democratic pluralism provided a grossly inaccurate explanation of the distribution of political power although , at the same time, he did not argue that the power of capital is the only factor determining the direction of State activity but that it is by far the dominant factor and that working class organisations (the Labour Party and the Trade Unions) are engaged in "Imperfect Competition" with it .They may in certain circumstances gain important victories for the working class but these victories do not challenge the overall dominance of capital and may in fact, ultimately help to sustain it by sustaining what Marxists consider to be the myth of pluralist democracy. [These arguments are of course completely at odds with the reverse  opinions articulated by both Conservative and Labour politicians and widely believed in UK society as a whole that especially in the 1970s and early 1980s the UK economy was being held to ransom by excessively powerful trade unions.]

Miliband follows conventional definitions of the State, seeing it as consisting of the institutions of central government, the administration or bureaucracy or Civil Service, parliamentary assemblies, the judiciary, the police, the military and local government. These institutions are, in turn, controlled by a number of State Elites, which, for a variety of reasons according to Miliband, will govern the State according to the interests of the dominant economic class i.e. the Bourgeoisie. The political dominance of the Bourgeoisie or the dominant economic class is seen as operating through the following mechanisms.

(Before continuing, we may note that John Scott, while broadly sympathetic to Miliband's analysis, has also criticised Miliband for his failure to distinguish adequately between the dominant economic class [5%- 10% of the population ] and the capitalist class [0 .1% of the population] . According to Scott, it is this 0 .1% who are the real Ruling Class}. However Returning to Miliband's anayssis

1 The continuing direct role of businessmen in State institutions: a large proportion of Cabinet Ministers have been involved in business and business people have also played an important role in central banking, nationalised industries and such state planning agencies as have existed from time to time and they could be expected to bring a capitalistic bias to government decision-making. However, it is admitted that businessmen fill only a small minority of all state elite positions.

2 However, secondly, political, administrative and military elites continue to be drawn from the higher reaches of the middle and upper classes The path to these positions will often be via prestigious public schools and universities and it is assumed by Miliband that this pattern of recruitment results in a powerful value consensus as between different state elites and between them and the dominant economic class. Many members of state elites are part of the dominant economic class or at least, on the fringes of it. There will therefore be a strong tendency for state elites to define the "national interest" in terms of the interests of the dominant economic class and to support policies favouring maintenance or at most marginal change to the capitalist status quo. Differences of opinion may exist on matters of detail but not on fundamentals. Also, where talented working class people are recruited to elite positions, they will recognise that success demands the rejection of any radical views they might have held and, in any case, this evidence of upward social mobility into elite positions, if it is not studied too carefully can be used to sustain the-myth of equal opportunity.

In fact , social mobility studies in the UK point to the ability of the upper class to retain its privileged existence across generations. D.V Glass pointed to the high levels of social self-recruitment into classes 1 and 7 and the Goldthorpe social mobility study, although it shows considerable absolute long range social mobility into the service class, also shows that the relative chances of entering the service class are much higher for the children of service class parents than for children of lower class backgrounds and agrees with the studies of elite occupations (those in the higher reaches of the service class) which point to very high levels of social self recruitment, usually via attendance at prestigious public schools and/or Oxbridge Universities.

This situation has been analysed in terms of the concepts of social closure and reproduction across generations. Upward social mobility into the upper class is limited because members of the upper class tend to marry within their class and because they have the benefits of an exclusive private education which combined with the strength of upper class social networks ensures that recruits to upper class occupations are themselves drawn primarily from the upper class. These factors combine to generate a high level of social closure around the upper class. Meanwhile, the upper class is likely to be reproduced across generations because of the inheritance of property and the purchase of private education although some talented and /or lucky[?!] working class people do gain entry to it.

(In the analysis of social mobility it is necessary to distinguish different types of social mobility: male and female; upward and downward; long range and short range; intergenerational and intragenerational and absolute and relative. Discuss these different types of social mobility with your teachers and consult your textbooks.]

Miliband also refers to the wealth of the Bourgeoisie as a factor influencing its political power. For example, business pressure groups are well-funded and, therefore, more likely to be effective; business contributions bolster the election campaigns of right wing [i.e. Conservative] political parties.

4.Also although pluralist studies appear to call into question the dominance of business pressure groups, critics of pluralism have argued that the power of capital should be seen more in structural and ideological terms which cannot be picked up by pluralist studies and Miliband accepts this line of argument.

  1. Developing the Marxist idea that "The ideas of the Ruling Class are, in every age, the ruling ideas - the class which has the means of material production at its disposal has control at the same time over the means of mental production", Miliband points to the dissemination of a dominant class ideology via capitalist socialisation processeswhich is accepted by most members of the State Elites and by much of the leadership of the Labour Party [especially, perhaps it might be added , most recently in the era of so-called "New Labour."]

6.Meanwhile, Miliband also accepts that because of their political socialisation/indoctrination many working class people either accept the dominant class ideology or accommodate fairly passively to it and so they are not susceptible to persuasion by radical left ideologies.

  1. Miliband makes the theoretical point that political power is visible through its consequences. Data on the distribution of income and wealth show that the UK is a highly economically unequal society: for Miliband these levels of economic inequality are maintained only because the dominant economic class has the indirect political power to ensure that they are maintained.

 In summary according to Miliband  an economically dominant class continues to exist and to exercise considerable power over the institutions of the State. Capitalism is still recognisably capitalism and it is the theories of post-capitalism which are inaccurate. However such theories do play the useful role for the dominant economic class of legitimising the capitalist system which benefits the dominant economic class disproportionately.

The Miliband-Poulantzas debate

Miliband's analysis as outlined in The State in Capitalist Society has been criticised from a Structuralist Marxist perspective by Nicos PoulantzasThe main elements of Poulantzas' approach may be outlined as follows:

  • Poulantzas adopts a broad definition of the State to include the Family and the Education System. Here, his approach is similar to that of Althusser in his use of ideological state apparatuses.
  • Poulantzas argues that individuals’ actions are determined less by their own attitudes and values and more by the positions which they occupy within the structure of society. For example, a senior Civil Servant helping to devise economic strategies in a liberal democracy will be obliged to take certain decisions irrespective of his/her own personal views or social background because the capitalist state depends upon the existence of a thriving capitalism economy to generate employment and taxation revenues without which the capitalist state cannot function. Similarly, the environmental policies to be pursued by capitalist states are constrained by perceived needs to maintain the profitability of capitalism. This implies, to Poulantzas, that Miliband, in The State in Capitalist Society, has overestimated the importance of shared social background of state and business elites and has underestimated the force of the structural constraints of capitalism, which helps to explain the failure of social democracy to transform capitalism despite the working-class origins of some of the leaders of social democratic governments.
  • The Bourgeoisie is not a unified class but consists of different fractions (big business, small business, manufacturing capital, finance capital, importers, exporters, high tech, low tech etc.) which may experience important conflicts of interest over the detailed organisation of capitalism even though they have a common interest in the continuation of the system as a whole. The relative power of the different fractions of the capitalist class varies over time, but in the UK context, Marxists have tended to argue that it is finance capital which has been able to exert decisive influence over state policy, sometimes at the expense of other fractions of the capitalist class.
  •  According to Poulantzas, the institutions of the State operate with some Relative Autonomy. This is the most significant phrase in the Poulantzas theory. Because of the differences of opinion within the capitalist class, and because it will sometimes be necessary to make concessions to the working class, the State needs to have some freedom of manouevre to resolve disputes and make concessions so as to ensure the continuation of the capitalist system as a whole. However, the freedom of the State is itself limited by the fact that it, too, operates within the constraints of a capitalist system.

Thus, according to Poulantzas, the State is a little more independent of the Bourgeoisie [i.e. relatively autonomous] than it is according to the early work of Miliband, although following some theoretical disputes in the I970s, Miliband did move a little closer to the Poulantzas position while warning of the dangers of what he called structural super-determinism!


5.3 Ralph Miliband, Divided Societies


Although The State in Capitalist Society (1969) is probably Ralph Miliband's best known work, I also recommend strongly Divided Societies (1991). In this study, Ralph Miliband developed a model of a fragmented capitalist class structure, which to some extent reflected some of the ideas which had been developed by C.W. Mills in his study The Power Elite. Thus, in Miliband's new model, capitalist class structures could be divided into 8 sections.

A dominant class containing four sections:

  1. a dominant Economic Elite: the people who wield corporate power by virtue of their control of major industrial, commercial and financial firms.
  2. a dominant Political Elite: Presidents, Prime Ministers Cabinet Ministers, Senior Civil Servants, Judges.

      These two sections, the dominant economic elite and the dominant political elite, together make up the Power Elite.

      The next two sections are those parts of the dominant class that do not belong to the power elite:

  1. the people who control and may also own a large number of medium-sized firms.
  2. members of a largeprofessional class of lawyers, accountants, middle-rank civil servants, military personnel, senior university teachers – in short "people who occupy the upper levels of the credentialised part of the population".

5 and 6. These two sections comprise the "Petty Bourgeoisie or lower middle class". It should be noted here that many other theorists use the term "Petty Bourgeoisie" to refer to owners of small businesses and self-employed craftsmen (they are usually men). However, in Miliband's formulation the Petty Bourgeoisie encompasses owners of small businesses and self-employed craftsmen plus "semi-professional, sub-managerial, supervisory" workers such as teachers, social workers, lab technicians and lower-level civil servants and local government officials". This seems to be a slightly unorthodox usage of the term “Petty Bourgeoisie”.

  1.  the working class, which obviously includes skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled manual workers. However, according to Miliband it also includes "clerical, distributive and service" workers, as well as the wives or partners of these workers who may not themselves be in employment. It also includes unemployed persons, pensioners and the children of working-class parents. On this basis Miliband argues that the working class accounts for about two-thirds to three-quarters of the population. However, others would argue that this overstates the size of the working class and that, for example, many routine non-manual workers might more accurately be regarded as members of the lower middle class. [See section below on the Proletarianisation of the Clerical Worker]
  2. theunderclass, which is recruited from the working class and made up of the poorest and most deprived sections of the working class and is therefore distinct from the bulk of wage earners. These workers are the long-term unemployed, the disabled and the long-term sick who are heavily dependent upon state benefits and/or help from relatives and/or charity. It must be noted that Ralph Miliband does not subscribe in any way to the neo-liberal version of the underclass associated with theorists such as Charles Murray. These theories of the underclass and criticisms of them are discussed briefly below and will be discussed in more detail elsewhere on the a new document.

Thus Miliband offers a Neo-Marxist model of capitalist class structure which emphasises the continued dominance of economic and political elites while recognising the fragmentary nature of the class structure. He also reiterates his arguments form The State in Capitalist Society stating that theories of post-capitalism are inaccurate in several respects, and that capitalist states continue to be dominated to a considerable extent by interlocking economic and political elites.

As already mentioned, Marx and Engels stated in the Communist Manifesto that "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles", and Miliband devotes two chapters in his study to the politics of class struggle. He argues that since the C19th workers have been able to exert at least some pressure from below to secure voting rights, trade union rights and the development of the Welfare State which have at least improved workers' living standards to some extent. However, he accepts also that the working class could not at any stage of its history be regarded as a revolutionary class, and that in the case of the UK, the trades unions and the Labour Party have been far more concerned to promote gradual social reform of the capitalist system rather than its transformation.

Meanwhile, he argues that the dominant economic class and the state which primarily reflects its interests have been involved in class struggle from above to secure the maintenance of the capitalist system. For example, in the era of the post-war consensus, trade unions have been incorporated into economic decision-making processes as a means of curtailing their radicalism. Furthermore, in the era of Thatcherism, new industrial relations legislation has been used to reduce trade union power; income inequality, which had been reduced during the post-war consensus, increased significantly in the Thatcher era due to the introduction of more regressive taxation and the abolition of wages councils designed to protect the incomes of the lower paid; and despite some expansion of welfare state spending, high levels of relative poverty remain, as do inequalities of educational opportunity and social class differences in health and in life expectancy. These patterns of inequality persist to a considerable extent because the capitalist-controlled mass media orchestrate propaganda in support of the capitalist system and against leftist critics of capitalism, and other agencies of socialisation such as the family and the education system tend to encourage conformity with the capitalist status quo.

Whereas it is argued in classical Marxism that the working class would be the ultimate agent of revolutionary change, Miliband agreed that up to the late 1980s there had been very little evidence of revolutionary working-class consciousness, and that trade unions and social democratic / socialist parties had failed to address adequately the existence of significant inequalities based on age, gender, race and sexuality or the increasing likelihood of environmental damage. It consequently came to be argued that these issues could be better addressed by new social movements of various kinds that were prepared to focus their attention more specifically on these particular issues, rather than via class-based politics.

However, Miliband argues that these problems derive essentially from the existence of capitalism as a system in that it is working-class women, working-class ethnic minority members, and working-class gay people who are most likely to experience most strongly the effects of discrimination, and that it is the capitalist system which is the ultimate cause of environmental damage. He therefore believes that political unity among new social movements, socialist/social democratic parties and trade unions is essential if these issues are to be addressed effectively, and that greater efforts must be made to encourage working-class people to recognise the evils of ageism, sexism, racism, homophobia and environmental damage if progress is to be made. Thus, although class politics remains central to Miliband's strategy, he recognises the need for a coalition of progressive forces if radical [and anti-capitalist] change is to be achieved.

 Click here for information on Socialism for a Sceptical Age, Ralph Miliband's final book, published in 1994.

For further information on Ralph Miliband
  • Click here for a list of works by Ralph Miliband. I would recommend especially Divided  Societies: Class Struggle in Contemporary Capitalism [1991]
  • Click here for a review of Socialism for a Sceptical age 1994
  • Click here for a review of Class War Conservatism and Other Essays  [from]
  • Click here for information on Socialism for a Sceptical Age, Ralph Miliband's final book, published in 1994.



Modern Marxism and the Analysis of the Middle Class

Marxist theories have sometimes been criticised on the grounds that his theory of class polarisation predicted the relative decline of the middle class whereas in practice from the mid c19th onwards it is very clear that for a variety of reasons non-manual employment has increased relatively to manual employment in capitalist societies suggesting that the relative size of the middle class has actually increased rather than decreased. However in his later work Marx did in fact predict the growth of the middle class  and modern Marxists have also suggested that one should not equate the growth of non-manual employment with the growth of the middle class because routine non-manual clerical work has to a considerable extent been proletarianised such that many clerical workers can more accurately be described as members of the working class rather than as members of the middle class. [However many non-Marxist sociologists have rejected the theory of the proletarianisation of the clerical worker.

Perhaps the  best known neo-Marxist analyses of the middle class or intermediate  groups within the class structure are those of by E.O. Wright. In his first theory Wright distinguishes between the capitalist mode of production and “simple commodity production” and between social classes and contradictory class locations. Thus the Bourgeoisie are a social class because they both own the means of production and exercise strategic control over the production process. The Proletariat  are also a social class because they are non-owners of the means of production and have zero or negligible control over the production process. The Petty bourgeoisie are small scale owners of the means of production but do not hire labour. They are seen as a capitalist class but operating outside of the capitalist mode of production.

 Other social groups are in contradictory class locations: managers and supervisors do not own the means of production but do exercise some control over other workers and over the production process; small employers own and control their means of production but employ very few workers; and semi-autonomous workers do not own the means of production but do have some control over their own labour. Diagrammatically E.O Wright' first theory is illustrated below.

 [Copied from Carl Cuneo's website at the University of McMasterHamilton: Ontario: Canada]

In E.O Wright’s second model
 , class membership depends upon ownership or non-ownership of the means of production, credentials (i.e. qualifications) and degree of control in the work place. This leads to a 12 class model of the class structure with several intermediate groups but no single middle class. There are some similarities with Weber given the high degree of fragmentation and Wright also admits that the working class may not be a revolutionary class. As a result some sociologists have concluded therefore that his work is barely recognisable as Marxist. [Copied from Carl Cuneo's website at the University of McMasterHamilton: Ontario: Canada]

You may like to find out more about both of these theories and discus them with your teachers.

  •  Modern Marxism and the Modern Working Class

Critics of Marxism have argued that the Marxist analysis of the working class was always flawed and that  20th Century developments have rendered the Marxist theory increasingly irrelevant for the analysis of the contemporary working class. Thus critics have argued that long term changes in overall class structures have resulted in the relative numerical decline of the working class and the relative numerical growth of the middle class and in the decline of unskilled and semi-skilled manual work and growth of skilled manual work within the working class itself all of which suggests that the working class is unlikely to play the revolutionary role predicted in Marxist theory.

These critics have suggested several further possible limitations to the Marxist analysis of the working class.

  1. They have argued [to some extent following the theories of Max Weber] that Marx had underestimated the importance of status differences within the working class which would inhibit the growth of class solidarity.
  2. They have argued that Marx understated the importance of gender, ethnic and religious  differences within the working class.
  3. They have claimed that 20th Century developments have resulted in the redistribution of income and wealth toward the working class and this ,combined with high and sustainable rates of economic growth, has resulted not in the immiserisation of the working class but in their rising affluence; that affluent working class people have experienced a process of embourgeoisement and that the increased availability of affordable consumer durables increased their contentment with the capitalist system as a whole.
  4. They have claimed  that Keynesian methods of demand management reduced the likelihood of mass unemployment [from the 1950s to the early 1980s at least]; that the expansion of the welfare state has protected the working class from poverty and increased opportunities for upward social mobility; and that especially in the 1983 General Election they deserted the Labour Party in droves ; and that even though working class support for Labour increased again in the Blairite era very few members of the working class have shown any signs of the revolutionary class consciousness predicted by Marx.
  5. Another class- related issue is the existence or otherwise of a  so-called underclass. This matter has generated great controversy in Sociology with some theorists supporting a cultural version of the theory , others supporting a structural version and yet others arguing that the concept of an underclass is not sociologically useful. because the most disadvantaged members of society should be seen as belonging to the lower sections of the working class rather than to a separate underclass  . Once again I hope to provide further information on theories of the underclass in a later document. Meanwhile you may click here for a recent report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation entitled "Are "cultures of worklessness" passed down the generations?" NEW link added December 2012
  • Appendix: Some further Information on the Theory of Embourgeoisement

From the 1950s onwards it was increasingly suggested that the more affluent sections of the working class were experiencing a process of Embourgeoisement. That is to say, these manual workers were becoming middle class. Their work was now less physically demanding; they were regularly consulted by management; they were better paid than many clerical workers; they did not see themselves as working class and partly as a result of this, were unlikely to vote Labour which helped to explain the three successive defeats for Labour in the General Elections of 1951, 19551955 and 1959. If this theory was correct, the boundary between the middle class and the working class was becoming very blurred especially if some proletarianisation of the clerical worker was also occurring.

However, the theory of Embourgeoisement was heavily criticised by Goldthorpe, Lockwood, Bechhofer and Platt in the so-called "Affluent Worker" studies of the late 1960s in which they aimed to compare the class positions of affluent factory workers, clerical workers and members of the traditional working class.    I shall not consider the details of the study here but in summary, Goldthorpe and CO claimed to have uncovered not a process of Embourgeoisement but the emergence of a "new working class" whose work experience, life styles, attitudes and values, although different from those of the traditional working class, were ,nevertheless, still recognisably working class. They argued also that a process of "normative convergence" between the "new working class" and the clerical workers was underway as clerical workers also increasingly joined trade unions attempting to halt the relative decline in their living standards

The Goldthorpe -Lockwood study seriously discredited the theory of Embourgeoisement in the 1960s but later sociologists both complimented and criticised the Luton study. It was for example argued that the "labour aristocracy" of the late C19th had values similar to those of the so-called new working class but also that the so-called new working class by the 1960s had values showing at least some elements of solidaristic collectivism.    By the  late 1980s, it was again argued by some that the Embourgeoisement  process was underway as the living standards of manual workers in secure employment did improve significantly and more and more of them bought their own houses , bought shares in privatised industries and were more likely to vote Conservative now than they had been in the 1960s, thus contributing importantly to Conservative General Election victories of 1979, 1983, 1987 and 1992.  Nevertheless social class inequalities actually increased in the 1980s and early 1990s again discrediting the idea that affluent sections of the working class were now experiencing embourgeoisement after all.


Modern Marxists have argued that the overall changes in the class structure suggested above should not be overstated because the overall growth of non-manual employment can to a considerable extent be account for by the growth of routine non-manual employment which in the view of many Marxists [most notably Harry Braverman] has been deskilled and proletarianised such that these workers should be regarded as part of the working class rather than the middle class.

Modern Marxists would admit the importance of class divisions within the working class based upon gender, ethnicity, religion [for example in Ireland] and skill differences but claim nevertheless that the working class as a whole remains a class which is exploited by the Bourgeoisie within the capitalist system. Skilled manual workers have become more affluent but significant wealth and income inequalities separate them from the higher levels of the class structure. Members of the working class  are more likely to experience relative poverty despite the activities of the welfare state; they have less independence and control over their work situation; they are more likely to experience alienation at work (despite Blauner’s theories of alienation which you may have to look up!); they have fewer fringe benefits and poorer promotion prospects. Their children are more likely to die in infancy and less likely to achieve educational success; they, themselves, are less healthy and will die younger.

Therefore even if revolutionary working class consciousness has failed to materialise as hoped for by Marx we cannot necessarily assume that working class people will increasingly be radicalised in the future. and further criticism of the capitalist system might be expected from radical intellectuals and from members of New Social Movements. However if radical social change does occur it may do so via the election of more radical government prepared to introduce radical social change via parliamentary processes rather than  by the kind of insurrectionary revolution which has occurred in the past. Currently of course the prospects of radical change appear relatively limited and some neo-Marxists  have analysed the ideology of Thatcherism in essentially Gramscian terms arguing that it amounts to the latest ideological form by which the dominant classes seek to sustain their dominance over the working class.  Similar arguments could be used in relation to Blairism, Cameron's so-called  "compassionate conservatism"  and the current ideology of the Liberal Democrats.

  • Marxist Theories: An Exercise on the Evaluation of Marxist Theories.

Below are listed some of the main criticisms which are often made of Marxist theories. together with some Marxist defences against such criticisms. In each case as you read then assess the validity of the criticism and think how modern Marxists might attempt to defend themselves against such criticisms. Then assign marks between 10 [for totally valid] and [for totally invalid] to measure the validity of each criticism . Discuss your mark allocations with other students.

In the 19th Century conservatives, liberals, non-Marxist socialists and anarchists argued that even Marx's analysis of 19th Century capitalism was inaccurate . Nowadays even if more analysts sympathise in some respects with the Marxist analysis of 19th Century many are critical of attempts to apply Marxist theory to the analysis of 20th Century capitalism. Here is a list of some of the criticisms often made of Marxist theories.

  1. It is argued that although Marx claimed to have uncovered the social scientific laws explaining the nature of historical change the processes of history have shown his theories to be invalid. Marx argued that socialist revolution was most likely in advanced capitalist societies such as Britain or Germany but in practice Marxist inspired revolution occurred first in Russia , a society in which capitalism was relatively underdeveloped, and this revolution did not usher in the kind of socialist, egalitarian society that Marx hoped for, but instead, power came to be monopolised by the leaders of the Russian Communist Parties . The Russian workers were still exploited and although living standards did improve, this was not sufficient to prevent the collapse of Communism in the U.S.S.R. and its Eastern European satellite countries  in the late 1980s. It is important to note, however, that these regimes were not strictly speaking, Communist regimes because the level of economic and political equality implied by Communism was certainly absent.
  2. Marx focused considerable attention in his analyses of capitalism on relationships between the economic base and the superstructure of society arguing that the organisation of the economic base determined to a considerable extent the organisation and operation of the institutions of the superstructure whose fundamental function was to sustain the dominance and control of the capitalist class within the economic base. Critics have argued that such theories are excessively "economic determinist" and overstate the extent to which the organisation of the economic base restricts the freedom of manouevre of individuals operating within the superstructure to behave as they see fit.
  3. Among the most important critics of Karl Marx was the German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920). Weber made the following criticisms of Marx:a. A person's class position depended not only on ownership or non-ownership of wealth but also on their incomes, fringe benefits and opportunities for social mobility. These variables, combined together, described an individual's  Market Situation.c. Divisions within these social classes were more important than Marx thought. Such divisions might mean that the working class would never unite and that, as a result, anti-capitalist revolutions simply would not occur.e. Where so-called Socialist revolutions do occur, power might pass not to the working class but to the bureaucrats in control of the newly powerful Socialist or Communist political parties. The working class would be relatively powerless both before and after the revolution. Experience in the former USSR and elsewhere suggests that Weber may have been substantially correct on this point.
  4. Here you need to assess the relative strengths and weaknesses of Marxist and Weberian Class theories.
  5. d. Divisions within classes might occur as a result of divisions of status within these classes. While class, as we have seen, is basically an economic concept, status refers to one's standing or prestige in society. It might be, sadly, that black people have less status than white people in the UK, or that Catholics have less status than Protestants in N. Ireland and these status differences may restrict the unity of the working class.
  6. b. Capitalist societies could be divided into 4 main social classes: the propertied upper class, the property-less white collar workers, the petty Bourgeoisie and the manual working class.
  7. Functionalists reject Marxist criticisms of the capitalist system and instead have provided  a very optimistic account both of the capitalist system in which the economic inequalities which exist under capitalism are both inevitable and desirable since they promote rising living standards for all and capitalism is in any case a relatively meritocratic system in which individuals' positions in the class structure are determined mainly by their own talents and abilities.
  8. Functionalist sociologists reject the Marxist conclusions that capitalism is an economic system which is inevitably based upon class conflict between the Bourgeoisie and the Proletariat. They argue instead that capitalism offers important opportunities for all members in society to work harmoniously on the basis of consensus rather than conflict.
  9. Functionalists also deny that formal education systems are organised in such a way as to sustain economic exploitation and inequality. Instead they argue that formal education systems promote equality of opportunity. Formal education systems also promote competitiveness and respect for legitimate authority which in turn generate ideological support for capitalism which, according to Functionalists ,is highly desirable given the high average living standards and individual freedoms provided under capitalism.
  10. Post-Capitalist theorists have argued that in several respects capitalist systems  developed in the 20th Century in ways not predicted by Marx in the 19th Century. Assess the validity of each of the following Post-Capitalist criticisms of Marxist theory.
    • The economic and political power of the capitalist class has declined as indicated by the theories of the managerial revolution and democratic pluralism thereby invalidating Marxist theory in relation to the capitalist class.
    • The overall shape of the class structure has changed reducing the numerical significance of the working class as a whole and the numerical significance of unskilled and semi-skilled employment within the working class.
    • By the mid 20th Century wealth and incomes were distributed much more equally than in the 19th Century.
    • The expansion of the welfare state has successfully reduced poverty and increased equality of opportunity such that capitalist societies had become much more meritocratic than in the 19th Century.
  11. The New Right theories which rose to prominence from he 1970s onwards were similar in several respects to Functionalist theories and generated criticisms of Marxist theory similar to those suggested by Functionalist sociologists.
  12. The  postmodernist sociologists Pakulski and Waters argued in The Death of Class"  that capitalist societies had evolved into "status conventional societies" in which greater affluence and a more equal distribution of income and wealth meant that individuals were much less constrained in their behaviour by social class membership so that "class" was less and less significant". Of course other Marxist and non-Marxist  sociologists such as Westergaard and  Marshall  respectively argued that if anything class inequalities hardened in the late C20th which in their eyes invalidated these postmodernist arguments. You can find more information on postmodernist analyses of class structure in your textbooks.

Ongoing Marxist Support for Marxist Theory

Modern Marxists would, of course, dispute all of the above conclusions this and continue to defend  Marxist theory on the following grounds:

  • Capitalist countries are still based on private enterprise and this means that the owners and controllers of private industry have great power over the working class.
  •  An economically dominant Bourgeoisie continues to exist and it still exercises great influence over the institutions of the State despite the appearance of democracy. This issue will be discussed in more detail in a later chapter
  • Max Weber's analysis of the details of class structure are interesting and important but these details are of less importance than the fundamental distinction between the Proletariat and the Bourgeoisie emphasised by Marxists.
  • Capitalist economies are grossly unequal and despite the existence of the Welfare State, great poverty, even if measured in a relative sense, continues to exist.
  • The overall significance of religion may have declined but the family, the schools and the capitalist -controlled mass media continue to brainwash the working class and prevent them from realising their true destiny, at least as Marxists would see it.
  • Just because previous revolutions have been unsuccessful in the past, this does not prove that they will be unsuccessful in the future.



  • Concluding Comments

I hope that you have found some of the above materials useful. I have tried to outline some of the core ideas of Marxism and in particular  to show how they are used to analyse both 19th Century and contemporary capitalist class structures. I have also relied on Ralph Miliband's analysis as published in "The State and Capitalist Society" as one example of Marxist analysis of the relationships between the economic power of the dominant economic class and its influence over the capitalist state although I have not considered other important theoretical approaches to the analysis of the state .

Capitalist class structures may be analysed also from Weberian, Functionalist, Post-Capitalist, New Right and Postmodernist perspectives and I have introduced some of the ideas associated with these perspectives although I have not discussed them in detail. I hope nevertheless that in each case you will be able to compare these different perspectives with the Marxist perspectives and that this document will serve as an introduction to the more detailed consideration of these perspectives in the future.

Good luck with your further studies.