Capitalist Hegemony and Contesting Concepts of Class*

One way that capitalism maintains its hegemony is by repressing discussion or even awareness of Marx’s particular concept of class – the one he invented and added to the tradition of class analyses before him. Marx’s new concept focused on the exploitation of a surplus from workers, replacing the old concepts that defined class chiefly in terms of property and power. Conservatives, liberals, and radicals all contribute to the repression of Marx’s class analysis, albeit in different ways. Some simply remove all class concepts from their discourses on society from their analyses as well as from their policy proposals. Others admit and use concepts of class, but insist on defining class in the ways that preceded Marx.  By returning to those concepts of class, they exclude Marx’s contribution and thereby lose the theoretical insights and political strategies made possible by his particular concept of class. This paper argues that an effective socialist counterhegemonic strategy requires us (1) to expose this exclusion of Marx’s breakthrough (to undo its repression), and (2) to recover and integrate Marx’s original concept into socialist strategies for the twenty-first century. The bibliography lists works with detailed elaborations of Marx’s class analytics.

Expunging Class Altogether

In popular discourses – such as those in the mass media – various overlapping propositions express the perspective that class simply does not exist. In this view, class is an irrelevant category for social analysis. Hence, “class” disappears from the language or else appears fleetingly as a straw man to be quickly and decisively dismissed. Historical arguments of this kind suggest that while classes may once have existed, they have been superseded in modern times. Society is now comprised of individuals, rather than classes. Cultural production becomes the work of individual genius, not collective movement. Political rhetoric defines democracy and equality, for example, as pertaining exclusively to individuals. Economic commentary proposes that “we are all in the middle class now,” a standpoint that quickly removes class difference and hence class analysis from discussion.

In the more formal academic versions of the same arguments – epitomized in the dominant neo-classical economics tradition – classes likewise virtually disappear. No entry on “class” appears in most contemporary economics textbooks. Economic outcomes – prices, incomes, growth, and so on – are theorized as products of the maximizing strategies of individual consumers and individual enterprises. The values of all commodities depend on supply and demand, and they emerge from the desires of individual consumers and producers. Incomes flow to each individual according to what each individually contributes to commodity production. Neoclassical economic theory not only proves to its own satisfaction that such an economy is optimal in all respects. It also demonstrates that if and when individuals act other than individually – say in monopolistic groupings to coordinate with others for extra advantages – the economic results are necessarily sub-optimal.

When proponents of such “classless” analyses engage in political struggles for social change, their agendas do not include class change. Expunging class from their thinking and their programs thus serves to secure the hegemony of the existing class structure. It has become invisible in and for their goals and strategies. Social problems are not approached as having class components; therefore, social solutions do not entail or require class changes. A society’s class structures sit above the fray, out of sight and out of mind. Its citizens struggle over their problems with the unrecognized and unspoken commitment to leave those class structures intact. Any class changes that do occur become unintended byproducts.

Admitting Some Concepts of Class While Excluding Marx’s

Then there are the conservatives, liberals, and radicals who do admit concepts of class into their analyses and prescriptions. Partly this is because concepts of class have figured prominently in countless literatures for thousands of years. From the ancient Greeks and Romans to Adam Smith, Robespierre, and David Ricardo, and from populist radicalisms to the Marxist challenge to modern capitalism, class categories proved central to many arguments on all sides of contested issues. For those aware of the history of class analysis, simply to dismiss the category of class out of hand has seemed indefensible.

Even those unaware of the history of class analyses have often been sensitive to the use of class in contemporary social criticism. Such thinkers make class appear in their arguments. However, they do so in several conceptualizations other than Marx’s surplus concept. The latter they ignore or, in a few cases, reject.

When admitted into their arguments, classes exist as simple aggregates of individuals sharing some common characteristic. Thus there might be the “class” of the poor, of property-owners, of immigrants, of wage-earners, of ethnic minorities, of the powerful, of the dominated and oppressed, and so on. Class functions as a synonym for “social group” or “social stratum” or “elite” in parallel usages. Like such synonyms, class exists as a derivative category: a social theory, although premised on individuals and their individual characteristics, recognizes groupings of such individuals as classes. The latter are logically derived/aggregated from what their component individuals are and do.  Classes are here nouns, whereas, for Marx, as we shall see, class was an adjective modifying a particular social process unrecognized by those who preceded him.

Two particular characteristics have most often been used, since at least the ancient Greeks, to aggregate the individuals sharing them into classes. The first of these is property ownership. Individuals who do own property confront individuals without property: hence a class of rich over and against a class of poor. Conservative, liberal, and radical theorists who recognize such property-defined classes usually disagree about their significance. Conservatives tend to see them as reflections of the more or less inherent different capacities and contributions among individuals – perhaps even necessary as socially productive incentives. Liberals tend to worry lest extreme inequalities of wealth destabilize society. They fear the possibilities and consequences of “class struggles” which they define/understand as conflicts between the greedy and the needy. Radicals define social stability as ultimately dependent on social justice, which they equate with an equality of property ownership (likely requiring and embodied within some kind of socialization of productive property). Marx was clearly a radical, but his new theory of class was overwhelmingly focused on surplus production and distribution, not on property ownership.

Power is the second common characteristic defining the social aggregates called “classes” for those who admit that concept into their analyses. Individuals who possess and wield power over others confront those controlled by that power: classes of the powerful and the powerless, of the rulers and ruled, of the order-givers and order-takers. Once again, the relatively more conservative see power as either inherent in or else won legitimately by the more capable individuals; perhaps human nature distributes it unequally in all societies. For many conservatives, an unequal distribution of power – i.e. class difference so defined – serves as an ordering mechanism necessary for social cohesion. Liberals, in contrast, worry about the social distribution of power. They fear that conflict between the powerful and the powerless – which some define as class conflict – can destabilize society. They prefer more equal power distributions and seek to constrain the extent of class differences understood as differential powers wielded by social groups.

Radicals often take unequal power distributions to be the foundation of the dominating-dominated dichotomy intrinsic to all social evils. Some view class differences as simply one (economic) kind or form of power inequality alongside such others as gender, racial, ethnic, and religious juxtapositions of dominators and dominated. For radicals, democracy has become, on the one hand, the central slogan expressing their hostility to unequally distributed authority. On the other, democracy is both their goal and their strategy for overcoming every society’s flaws and injustices.

The vast majority of social discourses that admit class concepts (conservative, liberal, radical, and the various mixtures among them) define them in terms of social groups with different quantities of property and/or power. Sometimes they insist on definitions in terms of either property or power; more typically they combine the definitions into a composite: the class(es) of the rich and powerful arrayed against the class(es) of the poor and powerless. When they find mere dualistic approaches inadequate, they specify intermediary groups: for example, middle classes who have less property and/or power than some but more than others, and so on. However nuanced, all these admissions of class treat the term as a noun, an aggregate of individuals sharing some common possession or characteristic.

The debates among conservatives, liberals, and radicals turn on their allegations about the necessity for more or less equality in the social distributions of property and power. Each side seeks to argue that stability, prosperity, happiness, and justice – or all of these – depend on its preferred class structure understood as its preferred distribution of property and power among individuals. Political parties, movements, and revolutions informed by such concepts of class aim at preserving or overthrowing particular social distributions of property and power.

Because such conservatives, liberals, and radicals define classes in terms that exclude Marx’s new and different concept of class, their analyses, debates, policy proposals, and social actions ignore what Marx meant by class structure. In this way, they contribute to a broad social blindness to class structures in Marx’s sense. The invisibility of class supports the hegemony of contemporary capitalism by keeping class off the agendas for social change advocated by social critics.

Marx’s Concept as Counterhegemonic

Marx’s work clearly shows his sympathetic knowledge of the property and power concepts of class that long predated him. His contribution was a new and different concept enabling him to supplement all previous class analyses in a revolutionary way. Marx’s new class concept referred to the way a society organized the production and distribution of a surplus. Class was an adjective, the label for the particular set of processes whereby a surplus gets produced and distributed. In all societies, some of its members use their brains and muscles to transform nature into useful objects. They always produce more of those objects than they themselves consume; that more is the surplus. Marx then asked the questions directly implied by the existence of such a surplus: (1) who produces such surpluses, (2) who gets the surpluses, and (3) to whom are these surpluses distributed by those who first get them and for what purposes are these distributions made? The answers that Marx only began to construct in his work led him to recognize that societies exhibit different ways of organizing their class processes. The producers of surpluses can be rich or poor, powerful or powerless, male or female, and so on, depending on the varying social contexts of surplus production. The same applies to the appropriators and distributors and to the recipients of distributed shares of the produced surplus. Property and power distributions (class in its pre-Marxian senses) are simply different aspects of society from surplus production and distribution (class in Marx’s new sense).

The unique culture, natural endowments, politics, and economics of each society combine to determine the specific qualities and quantities of its class processes. From one time and place to another, societies vary in terms of who produces and appropriates surpluses (of what size and in what ways) and who distributes surpluses (in what portions) to whom, for what purposes, and in what ways. Marx’s attention to historical detail led him to identify five qualitatively different kinds of class processes (or “class structures”): communist, slave, ancient, feudal, and capitalist. He concentrated overwhelmingly upon the last given his judgment that it constituted the hegemonic class structure within modern society, However, he sketched some initial lines of the analysis of the other class structures (especially the feudal which preceded the capitalist in Europe) and recognized that multiple class structures typically coexist within most societies.

The counterhegemonic thrust of Marx’s new concept of class was this: capitalism’s injustices (including its unequal distributions of property and power) and its wastes and inefficiencies (business cycles, unemployment, natural despoliation, etc.)   were connected to its particular set of class structures. To remedy those systemic problems likely required changing more than property and power distributions; it likely also required changing its class structures. The progressive criticisms previously addressed to inequitable property and power distributions had now to be supplemented. Marx provided that supplement by his exposure of class structures as particular organizations of surplus production, appropriation, and distribution and by his demonstrations of their multiple, complex effects on the societies in which they existed.

Marx’s Capital demonstrates the existence and social effects of one kind of class structure, the specifically capitalist mode of organizing the production, appropriation, and distribution of surplus. Surplus is the book’s main topic and focus across the three volumes. Property and power are ancillary considerations. Marx’s punch line is that previous progressive social movements, including revolutionary upheavals, had often fallen short of their goals because they had lacked an awareness of the interdependence of property and power distributions with the very different – and hitherto untheorized – matter of class structures in their surplus definition.

Marx’s political objective was to improve the prospects for radical social movements aimed at justice, democracy, solidarity, and equality by adding to their arsenal the class analysis he had produced. No longer would revolutionary demands limit themselves, for example, to equalizing property and power without adding the demand for the class changes needed to accompany and support such equalizations. Marx’s poetics also drove home the point that class changes were not just necessary means to other ends; they were moral issues in themselves. Marx’s focus on the notion of exploitation – defined as the circumstance where the workers who produced the surplus were excluded from its appropriation and distribution – rendered it as morally objectionable, in itself, as slavery, child abuse, or autocracy. He chose pointedly to refer to the exploited workers in capitalist enterprises as “wage-slaves.”

The Repression of Marx’s Concept of Class

For many reasons, Marx’s new conceptualization of class in terms of surplus was repressed over the last hundred years. Revolutionary movements steeped in the property and power concepts of class could not easily accommodate Marx’s class-qua-surplus arguments beyond formulaic invocations of his powerful writings. Masses and leaders long used to defining their problems and solutions essentially in terms of redistributing wealth and power did not quickly demand as well the transformation of their societies’ organization of surplus. The devotees of exploitative class structures, when threatened by Marx’s work, deflected its thrust by accepting some equalization of property and power as, for them, a lesser evil than revolutionary class change. In the later nineteenth and across the twentieth centuries, social democracy emerged national movements toward relatively less unequal distributions of property and power than had existed before. In some places and for some times, they enjoyed limited successes, but these were never secure.

In a sense, Marx’s new surplus labor concept of class was lost. It faded back into the older property and power concepts as if it were simply a restatement or elaboration of them. No conspiracy achieved this result, nor was there any explicit project toward that end. A complex of social conditions repressed Marx’s concept. Thereby, modern capitalism’s distinctive class – i.e. surplus – structure and its specific effects remained invisible. This served to keep progressive social movements – even when led by Marxists sincerely invoking his name and work – limited to the fight for less inequality of property and power distributions as the meaning and content of class struggles. In this way, the repression of Marx’s class analytical insights functioned to support capitalist hegemony. It kept capitalism’s distinctive mode of producing, appropriating, and distributing surplus out of radical sights and radical minds. When surplus was even mentioned, it was seen as derivative of property or power; attending to the latter would then suffice to deal effectively with the former.

Thus both socialist and communist movements of the last century have focused virtually exclusively on utilizing state power to equalize property and/or power. Moderate socialists seek these ends by mild and partial state regulation of private capitalist enterprises. Left socialists favor less mild and more comprehensive regulations in the interest of fuller equalizations. Communists often go further still: a workers’ party committed to state ownership and state planning should take power toward the end of dispossessing the private capitalists and superseding the market. That alone, they argue, will secure the democratization/equalization of property and power presumably sought by all on the left.  Lost in all these degrees of leftism is the issue of displacing the existing set of class structures (modes of organizing the surplus) with a different set
Thus, when the Bolsheviks took power in Russia, they transformed property and power relations in countless ways, many in the direction of far greater equality than had ever existed there before. But in the factories and offices seized by the workers and turned over to their new workers’ state, the same system of surplus production, appropriation, and distribution remained largely in place. The private capitalists on the boards of directors gave way to state officials, but the workers remained producers of a surplus they did not appropriate. They remained within an exploitative class structure in Marx’s precise sense. The resulting position of the state as an exploiter had disastrous consequences – all the worse because that reality could not be admitted, debated, or addressed. The Soviets were blind to their class situation in its surplus sense, having been caught up fully in the loss of Marx’s class concept and the failure to grow beyond the older property and power concepts.

The social democrats across the world fared no better. Often in critical reaction against the communists – accusing them of not delivering on the promise of greater equality of property or power – they pursued parliamentary strategies within predominantly private capitalist societies. Progressive tax structures, free mass education, government employment programs, social service provisions, and so forth became the incremental steps toward that equalization of property and power that defined their socialism just as exclusively as it defined the communists’. They differed on the means, not the end, although their ferocious debates found each denouncing the other as corrupted renegade in the quest for that end. The social democrats too left intact the exploitative capitalist structure of surplus production, appropriation, and distribution. They too focused their supporters’ attention on the quests for greater property and power equalization (increasingly combined under their banner of “democracy”). They too suffered and also fostered the blindness to Marx’s surplus concept of class. The absence from their political programs of any demand for an end to exploitative class structures in Marx’s sense did not disturb them. Thus, they too secured the hegemony of the capitalist class structure by limiting their struggles – even when called class struggles – to issues of property and power.


Capitalist hegemony arose from and has been sustained by many overdetermining factors. The anti-capitalist left cannot control all of those factors. But we can undertake the self-criticism proposed in this paper, to the end of controlling the concepts of class informing our politics. We can interrogate the differences among alternative concepts of class. We can recognize the stakes for our political practice in deciding how the contesting concepts of class will inform our agendas for social change. Our desire to achieve greater successes in the twenty-first century than those we achieved in the twentieth requires no less. We need not pick among the different concepts of class. Rather we need to integrate them all into our social criticism and the alternatives we propose.

This perspective is practical. The left’s historic quest for greater equality in the distribution of property and power is noble and valuable, but it needs extending. For this, the left must overcome its blindness to Marx’s new concept of class. Analytically, this means determining which of Marx’s five basic organizations of surplus production, appropriation, and distributions coexist in our society. Politically, the left must take an  explicit political position against our society’s exploitative and for the non-exploitative (the communitarian or, in Marx’s phrase, the communist) class structures. We must show the public how non-exploitative class structures support as well as complement the greater equalities of property and power central to our programs for progressive social change. In short, we can contribute to undermining capitalism’s hegemony if we expose its distinctive class qua surplus structure and make the transformation of that structure into an explicit component of our revolutionary objectives. This is long overdue.

*Paper presented at the Socialist Scholars Conference, Cooper Union, New York, April, 2001.


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