For Marxists, class is not an arbitrary or abstract concept. Rather, it is a verifiable feature of certain human life processes. According to The German Ideology, written by Marx and Engels in 1845-6, human society passed through different productive epochs and in each there were opposing groups of people defined according to the objectively different relationships they had to the means and products of material production. That is, in every epoch, economic practices structure human society into “classes” with diametrically opposed interests rooted in relations of ownership to the means of production..
These relations of ownership to the means of production constitute what Marx calls the “relations of production” and this is an arena of perpetual tension and struggle (1977, p. 179). When the relations of production are combined with the “forces of production” (factories, workplaces, plant, equipment and tools, and knowledge of their use) we arrive at a “mode of production” or “economic base” (Marx, 1977, p. 161; 168). This productive “infrastructure” forms the organizational rationale and dynamic for society in general and these are reflected in the social institutions (e.g., the state) that spring up and become established in accordance with the needs of productive relations.
However, the techniques and technologies of production under capitalism always dictate new working practices which exert pressure for change. The institutions which attempt to guard the existing relations of production from crises (principally the state) then begin, precisely and contradictorily by attempting to guard those relations from crises to obstruct the further development of the forces of production and eventually the pressure of contradictions rooted in the class contradiction becomes too great and the established institutions are transformed by revolution. At that point, new social and political institutions, appropriate to new relations of production, are developed, and these must accord with the further free development of the material forces of production. The German Ideology constitutes Marx’s attempt to depart from the metaphysical abstraction of the Hegelian idealist method and locate the motor of historical change in living, human society and its sensuous processes.
For later thinkers, such as Lenin, the significance of Marx’s transformation of dialectics is the identification of the concept of ‘class struggle’ as the essential historical dynamic. In any era, and most certainly in the capitalist, society is locked in conflict; since the needs of a certain group in the productive process are always subordinated to another. Marxists hold that this social conflict cannot be truly reconciled with the source of its economic causation, and this perpetual tension is the seedbed of revolution.
The capitalist era is both typical of human history and at the same time unique. It is typical in that its production techniques involve the exploitation of one human being by another, but it is unique in history in terms of its advancing this principle to unprecedented levels of efficiency and ruthlessness. For Marx, writing in the Preface to A Critique of Political Economy of 1859 (known simply as the “Preface”), the capitalist era marks the zenith of class struggle in history and human exploitation cannot be taken further (1977, p. 390). The only redeeming feature of capitalism is its assembling its own social antithesis in the “proletariat” or “working class” which is destined to rise up against the bourgeoisie (profiteering or “ruling class”) and abolish class and exploitation and thus bring “the prehistory of human society to a close” (1977, p. 390).
What, though, do Marxists mean by capitalist “exploitation”? In the first volume of Capital, Marx argues that workers are the primary producers of wealth due to the expenditure of their labor in the production of commodities. However, the relationship between the owners of the means of production (the employers) and the workers is fundamentally exploitative since the full value of the workers’ labor power is never reflected in the wages they receive. The difference between the value of the labor expenditure and the sum the worker receives for it is known as “surplus value,” and this is pocketed by the employer as profit.
Marx saw surplus value as the distinguishing characteristic and ultimate source of class and class conflict within the capitalist system (Cuneo, 1982, p. 378). However, for Marx, surplus value is not merely an undesirable side-effect of the capitalist economy; it is its motive force and the entire system would readily collapse without it. Technically, while surplus value extraction is not wholly unique, historically, to capitalist systems, all capitalist systems are characterised by it. Marx is thus able to offer a “scientific” and objective definition of class in the capitalist epoch based on which side of the social equation of surplus value one stands and to show, moreover, that this economic arrangement is the fundamental source of all human inequality.
Class is therefore absolutely central to Marxist ontology. Ultimately, it is economically induced and it conditions and permeates all social reality in capitalist systems. Marxists are therefore largely hostile toward postmodern and post-structural arguments that class is, or ever can be, ‘constructed extra-economically’, or equally that it can be ‘deconstructed politically’ – an epistemic position which has underwritten in the previous two decades numerous so-called ‘death of class’ theories - arguably the most significant of which are Laclau & Mouffe (1985) and Laclau .
Extract from Embourgeoisment, Immiseration, Commodification - Marxism Revisited: a Critique of Education in Capitalist Systems. Journal for Critical education Policy Studies, 5(1).(Greaves N, Hill D and Maisuria A 2007