Marx and Engels’ theory of the end of class society

Marx and Engels’ theory of classes in bourgeois society is detailed in the German Ideology. I want to examine it in some detail, because I think it raises fundamental questions about the strategy of the radical Left as this strategy is commonly understood.

Wikipedia defines a theory this way:

“In modern science, the term “theory” refers to scientific theories, a well-confirmed type of explanation of nature, made in a way consistent with scientific method, and fulfilling the criteria required by modern science. Such theories are described in such a way that any scientist in the field is in a position to understand and either provide empirical support (“verify”) or empirically contradict (“falsify”) it. Scientific theories are the most reliable, rigorous, and comprehensive form of scientific knowledge, in contrast to more common uses of the word “theory” that imply that something is unproven or speculative (which is better characterized by the word ‘hypothesis’). Scientific theories are distinguished from hypotheses, which are individual empirically testable conjectures, and scientific laws, which are descriptive accounts of how nature will behave under certain conditions.”

To be a valid theory of classes, Marx and Engels’ theory must be

  1. “a well-confirmed type of explanation of nature”;
  2. “described in such a way that any scientist in the field is in a position to understand and either provide empirical support (“verify”) or empirically contradict (“falsify”) it”; and
  3. provide an empirically testable account “of how nature will behave under certain conditions.”

I think the theory of classes outlined by Marx and Engels fulfills these conditions on all three counts. This conclusion will not be welcomed by most Leftists since, as I will show, this theory of class contradicts almost every assumption of radical strategy.

The theory itself

The class that ultimately becomes the bourgeoisie began as a collection of local corporations of burghers during the feudal period. Trade and communication between towns made them aware of each other. Their common conflict with the existing feudal organization of society led them to assert the same interests against what was for them a common enemy.

Because of their common conflict with existing feudal conditions and the labor process as it was organized under those conditions, the conditions of life of this early bourgeoisie became, first, conditions common to them all and, second, independent of them all. Their material conditions thus were, in first place, in conflict with existing feudal condition, yet independent of the burghers themselves.

The early bourgeoisie created these new material conditions by tearing themselves free of existing feudal conditions. And these new material conditions were their unique creation insofar as they were created in antagonism to existing feudal conditions. As relations between the various burgher corporations deepened and developed, these conditions became the conditions of a new class.

This new class develops only gradually. It is differentiated internally as it splits up according to the division of labor. It is cancerous, i.e., it invades and absorbs the existing propertied classes it finds already in existence. It creates a new class, the proletarians, out of the members of society who own no property and part of the existing propertied classes. And it converts all existing property into industrial and commercial capital.

Uniquely, the members of this class form a distinct class only to the extent they carry on a conflict with another class. In absence of conflict with another class, the members are on hostile terms as competitors among themselves. For this reason, the conditions that have developed into class conditions, have an independent life separated from the members of the class. The individuals in turn find their conditions as member of the class already in existence before them. They become subsumed under their class.

Marx and Engels conclude:

“This subsuming of individuals under definite classes cannot be abolished until a class has taken shape, which has no longer any particular class interest to assert against the ruling class.”

Implications of the theory

Thus Marx and Engels arrive at the conclusion the proletarians, because of their unique attributes, will put and end to class society.

To understand why this must be true, recall that members of a class form a distinct class only to the extent they carry on a conflict with another class. Absent this conflict, they are not a class, but a collection of hostile competitors. If a class has no interest to assert against another class, it no longer counts as a class, even if it shares common material conditions.

In their unique theory, Marx and Engels explicitly define a class as one that shares common material conditions and carries on conflict with another class. Then they explicitly argue that the class that puts an end to all classes no longer has the latter attribute. This non-class shares every other attribute with other classes except this one attribute — a conflict with another class.

Why this class in particular does not share this attribute with other classes must be explained. Again, we have to go back to the previous discussion. The early bourgeoisie created these new material conditions by tearing themselves free of existing feudal conditions. And these new material conditions were their unique creation insofar as they were created in antagonism to existing feudal conditions.

However, for the proletarians, unlike the bourgeoisie, this is not true. The proletarians neither tear themselves from existing (bourgeois) conditions, nor create new condition in antagonism to these conditions. Instead, they themselves are the product of bourgeois conditions.

For their theory of classes to be internally coherent, abolition of classes must be predicated on the unique attributes of the proletarians. What makes proletarians uniquely qualified to abolish classes if they were just a class like every other class? It cannot be labor, because peasants do just as much labor as proletarians. It can’t be the fact that they are propertyless, because slaves had no property. Neither labor nor the absence of property make the proletarians unique.

What makes the proletarians the class that puts an end to class society is that already they are not a class in the sense of the term as Marx and Engels employs it, i.e., although they share the same material conditions, these condition do not put them into conflict with the bourgeois mode of production.

Thus, as bourgeois social relations metastasize throughout society like a cancer, it constantly reproduces this non-class on an ever larger scale. The proletariat doesn’t have to “do” anything to put an end to classes, because it is already the end of class society.

Application of the theory

People wrongly think there is something else that has to be done, so they are always trying to figure out how to “create” communism. You can take exception to this argument based on historical grounds, the way some take exception to Marx’s theory of money. Perhaps later research shows Marx and Engels did not get things right historically. I think this is unlikely, but it is possible.

One thing that cannot be done, however, is argue Marx and Engels believed the mechanism for the end of class society is anything but the emergence of a class that has no class interest to assert against the ruling class.

Which means the entire strategy of most of the Left is deeply flawed. That strategy assumes the proletarians have some class interest that brings them into conflict with the other class. This may be true, but it would mean Marx and Engels were completely wrong about how bourgeois society works. If Marx and Engels were right we are dealing with a class that is more likely to look on other members of their class as competitors than as comrades.

This hostility, of course, is the simplest explanation for the persistence of misogyny, racism, national chauvinism, etc. within the class. In an attempt to insulate themselves from competition, the proletarians employ every means at their disposal to lock their competitors out of the labor market. This can give rise to the most ugly, disgusting behavior imaginable.

The assumption of a common class interest among the working class blinds us to the deeply incoherent character of its politics. At the same time it leads us to think the “common interests” of the working class can be brought to it from outside through socialist education. In fact, no amount of socialist education by us will overcome the impact on the class of the competitive struggle among them to sell their labor power.

6 thoughts on “Marx and Engels’ theory of the end of class society”

  1. So, if the proletariat is already putting an end to class society, then “the end to class society” looks pretty disappointing for anyone expecting a communist utopia.

    You have explained before that capitalism is headed to its grave regardless of the will of the proletariat. Okay, in that case, I would love for you to outline what the end of capitalism will look like in that case when “nobody is at the wheel,” when we choose “barbarism” over socialism.

    In the past, you have mentioned that it involved the end of production based on exchange value, and indeed, a growing segment of production (especially military production, but also agriculture and anything that goes into welfare) is carried on in a planned manner at the behest of the government (financed through ever more taxes) rather than being called for by exchange value and the lure of realizing surplus value in the market. Will this trend just keep intensifying? Will we get to a point where government spending accounts for 70% of the economy, 80% of the economy, 90% of the economy, and so on? Will production in fields like automobiles and computers increasingly take place at the behest of government purchase orders rather than market incentives? What is to stop business owners from revolting against this process and trying to reverse it? What would happen if they tried to do that? Economic depression?

    In all of this, I’ll tell you what I don’t see. I don’t see the end of money. I don’t see the withering of the state. I don’t see the end of classes. Presumably, capitalists will even more be separated into coupon clippers and managers who either (in the former case) buy government bonds rather than engage in entrepreneurial investment for the market, or who (in the latter case) manage production in order to fill government purchase orders. In any case, they will still make more money and live better than others, and in the case of the coupon clippers they won’t even be doing any useful work in exchange. Meanwhile, there will still be workers working for a wage, but their boss will increasingly be the state rather than the company or the market. They will increasingly come to live under a sort of “state-capitalism” such as in the Soviet Union, where the state used quasi-militarized labor to produce use values that would mainly aggrandize the state’s own military power (far from setting workers in control of work or diverting the use values produced to enhancing ordinary people’s comforts).

    It ain’t capitalism, but it also ain’t socialism, communism, or anything to particularly look forward to. And I don’t see how this “barbarism” would ever automatically lead to socialism or communism. Not much to look forward to, it would seem….

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    1. (And it’s even more depressing in light of your argument that there ain’t ever gonna be any socialism or communism because the working “class” ain’t a class and ain’t ever gonna take control…so…that implies to me that all we have to look forward to is this “barbarism,” until the end of time. Can you show me otherwise, please?)

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  2. I agree with citizencokane here. Following Jehu’s thought process forward to its (logical) conclusion would yield, more or less, the situation he describes, far away from anything we could understand as communism in any reasonable sense. However, I think this might very well be correct, whatever “depressing” feelings that might engender. I would only add that we will likely have burned ourselves to death as a spieces sometime before we hit the 90% mark. Cheers!!!

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    1. I suppose that there is cause for optimism if you think that a state could actually be controlled democratically, so that by the point when the state is taxing at 90% and 90% of production is at the behest of government purchase orders (state-capitalism), perhaps the government would be taking orders from people as a whole and making purchase orders for use-values that people actually want, rather than just military spending.

      But I think that’s quite idealistic. That was kind of how the Soviet Union was supposed to work, but the state bureaucracy came to have its own interests. Instead of producing what people wanted, they told firms to produce the bare minimum of what they thought people needed to keep them from starving and/or revolting, and the rest they spent mainly on military, with a few small perks given to the elite (certainly nothing like what our billionaires enjoy, but still…) Not an inspiring utopia.

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      1. The tagline though.
        “Communism is free time and nothing else!”

        If we follow through earlier thoughts; that capitalism forces the necessary social labour to reproduce material existence to a minimum and eventually renders it superfluous – which is signalled by the breakdown of exchange value – then we are in the pre-conditions of communism?

        A revolution just puts all the productive capacity of humanity to work creating the end of work does it no? It can do this in a humane way by spreading out the hours each person works to further diminish this work.

        So the proletariat abolishing class means it abolishes the distinction of those who labour to end work, and those who exist off the back of that labour.

        I don’t know I might have fucked up, but that’s a crude view of it.

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  3. Jehu, you write:

    “If Marx and Engels were right we are dealing with a class that is more likely to look on other members of their class as competitors than as comrades.

    “This hostility, of course, is the simplest explanation for the persistence of misogyny, racism, national chauvinism, etc. within the class. In an attempt to insulate themselves from competition, the proletarians employ every means at their disposal to lock their competitors out of the labor market. This can give rise to the most ugly, disgusting behavior imaginable.”

    In my view the first (correct) observation about competition doesn’t adequately explain the second (correct) observation that groups of workers are divided against each other in those particular ways.

    This is because competition between individual workers is not the same as the establishment of practices of group division (and the noxious ideologies used to explain why some groups should have rights over others) within civil society. Capitalist social relations have a tendency to break down and dissolve all group divisions because of the way they keep producing and reproducing a civil society of competing, atomised, private, egoistic individuals (Hobbes’s “war of all against all”).

    That is, competition under capitalism can provide the material basis on which various society-wide divisions (oppressions) like the ones you describe can be built, but it cannot explain such divisions themselves. To take a simple example, why are black workers not divided against each other in the same way there is a division between white and black workers?

    The answer, in my opinion, is that society-wide divisions require a society-wide social force to be created and maintained, and the only such force in modern society is the state. Because, as you point out, the bourgeoisie is internally divided it cannot act coherently on a society-wide basis. Indeed, as M&E point out, the state governs bourgeois society “over against” the members of the bourgeois class.

    To come up with coherent and valid theories of oppression and group division, we may be able to find part of the answer in the inter-individual competition between workers and part in the interests of certain individuals or sections of the bourgeoisie, but in the end we will need to consider the particular interests of the state (and the members of the political society around it) as the most important factor driving them.

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