Concepts of class and stratification : essays on Max Weber, Talcott Parsons and Karl Marx

Lynn Susan Levine, Binghamton University--SUNY


The division of society into classes and the determination of social life according to the exigencies of this division has provided, since the middle of the nineteenth century, the basis for the whole of the self-conception of Marxist social science. Class as an historical presupposition, as a “sociological datum,” etc., provides not only the ultimate subject matter of the Marxian social sciences but the basis for a methodological critique of the social sciences as a whole. To this extent the concept of class has been simultaneously excluded from any systematic conceptual derivation and considered the necessary logical basis for all systematic deduction of the relations of modern economic and social life. And yet, in the face of this history and tradition, Marx’s own work on modern economic life seems to stand apart. Here, in Capital, the concept of class stands not as irreducible premise, but as a conception which is itself required to await the full development of the logic of economic life. In the pursuit of the systematic conception of economic life Marx leaves aside any conception of class until the point is reached at which the articulation of the system of economic relations is virtually complete, thereby implicitly banishing the concept of class from the determination of economic life. Up until this point Marx considers capital, labor and their mode of interaction but never as a real class relation. Instead the relation between capital and labor is conceptualized as a relation of exchange between commodity owners, or as the act of the consumption of the commodity labor-power by capital. Capital and labor exist in the first instance in general, later as a system of particular capitals and laborers, but not until the completion of the economic analysis as a class.

The rupture which emerges between the traditional methodological conceptions of Marx’s work and the actual logic of Marxist analysis results ultimately from the bifurcation in the Marxian project. In Marx’s work is found both the development of a critique of bourgeois society based upon the arbitrary presupposition of its class character, and the development of a conception of bourgeois social life which subjects this life to a dialectical treatment. In the latter, Marx leaves aside any arbitrary presuppositions and pursues instead the immanent logic of social life, its self-development. In the period which succeeds the first statement of the Marxian program, the second mode of treatment of bourgeois social life has invariably been lost in its subordination to the external requirements of an essentially moral indictment of modern society as a class society. As a moral indictment, this “critical” project condemns only by failing to comprehend. With the rise of Marxism the Marxist contribution to the science of society has been suppressed. And yet in order to make reasonable the class character of bourgeois society, it is necessary to do so in terms of the conception of bourgeois society and not in terms of any contingent history or arbitrary empirical proposition. It is necessary to demonstrate the necessity of the system of class relations and by so doing to establish the intrinsic logic of that system. Only in this way will it be possible to grasp theoretically the class relation, to have a concept of class.

This development requires a radical shift in the methodology since it can no longer be considered satisfactory to find in the concept of class an irreducible premise which creates the theory of economic and social life. On the contrary, it is now essential that the theory of economic and social life be made the locus of the determination of a conception of class relations. And this is precisely what Marx has indicated in his own treatment of the economy and in the manner in which he considers the concept of class as having its own, determinate location within the treatment of social interaction. But just as Marx arrives at the point in his analysis at which the logical prerequisites for a systematic theoretical treatment of class have been provided, the manuscript ends and the problem of class which is placed on the agenda at the beginning of the development of Marx’s own thought finds its resolution cut off at the end of that development.

The methodological opposition which distinguishes the historical starting point of Marxism from its endpoint is not hard to discover. In the beginning, class is a methodological presupposition and the conception is subordinated to a specific history. In Capital, by contrast, class is considered as a concept to be determined not historically but conceptually. And, for Marx, its conceptual treatment is synonymous with its subsumption to a dialectical logic which implies the constitution of class as a moment in the self-development of the logic of social life. To be sure, even within Capital, the dialectic is often enough derailed by the introduction of arbitrary historical and empirical notions. Nonetheless, the argument as a whole is a logical and not a historical one and its logic is that of the self-development of the social principle and not that of the “methodology of the social sciences.” In order to grasp the concept of class, and to grasp the concept of class as it emerges out of Marxian theory, it is first necessary to establish that concept as a moment of a logical development. In this the starting point can no longer be the “history of hitherto existing society” as such but the “science of logic.” In this respect the starting point for understanding the logic of social life and of Marx’s own conception is not in Marx but in Hegel.

In the following the reconsideration of the concept of class is pursued as a logical problem. The objective of this reconsideration is to establish the distinctiveness of the Marxian treatment as a basis for the development of a real, that is scientific, concept of class. We begin with a critique of the logic of the modern conception of class based upon the current methodology of the social sciences. It is through the critique of this conception that the necessity of an integration of the concept of class into a different logic is made apparent.