What are the major classes in society?

In Capital, Marx also succinctly notes that ‘in order to labour productively, it is no longer necessary for you to do manual work yourself; enough if you are an organ of the collective labourer, and perform one of its subordinate functions.'

On this view, it is clear that the ‘working class’ extends far beyond industrial and manual workers. But this extension also creates certain major difficulties for Marxist sociology and politics. For not only does the designation now cover white-collar workers and ‘service’workers of every sort, which is not a major difficulty: it also encompasses many other people as well, for instance managerial staff, executive personnel of high rank and even the topmost layers of capitalist production. ‘We are all working class now’ may be useful conservative propaganda —but it would be odd to have it legitimated by Marxist concepts; and, more serious, the notion of ‘working class’ would cease, on this basis, to make possible the differentiations which the class structure of capitalist societies obviously requires.

What is needed here is a set of criteria which do make possible these differentiations—in this instance between the various aggregates of people who constitute different elements of the ‘collective labourer’, and which allow the necessary distinction to be made between the ‘working class’ elements of the ‘collective labourer’ and the rest: between, say, the corporation executive and the factory worker. The criteria in question are partly —but hardly exhaustively—provided by Marx himself when he refers in the above quotation from Capital to those people who perform the ‘subordinate functions’ of the ‘collective labourer’. The notion of subordination is here crucial, though other criteria of differentiation may be linked to it, for instance income and status, and are usually related to it.

The ‘working class’ is therefore that part of the ‘collective labourer’ which produces surplus value, from a position of subordination, at the lower ends of the income scale, and also at the lower ends of what might be called the ‘scale of regard’.

This designation does not by any means solve all problems. But neither does any other. One such problem, which is embedded in the notion of class itself, is that of heterogeneity. Like all other classes, the ‘working class’ is divided into many different strata and by a whole set of differences, which vary according to time and place, hut some of which at least are always present. In the present designation, the main difference would be between industrial wage-earners on the one hand (themselves greatly differentiated) and ‘white collar’ and ‘service’ workers on the other—and the latter terms obviously cover a wide variation of occupations and grades.

Another such problem, which is a constantly recurring one in the discussion of class, is where to ‘cut off’—in this instance to decide at what point (if any) it is appropriate or necessary to draw the line between the ‘workers ‘just mentioned and the large and growing number of ‘workers’ who perform a variety of technical, intellectual, supervisory, and managerial tasks. As already noted, these people are indeed part of the ‘collective labourer’: but whether they are part of the ‘working class’ is an open question. The point is far from a mere matter of pedantic denomination. On the contrary, it has important political implications, in terms of political strategy and alliances.

As far as classical Marxism is concerned, the ‘working class’ is basically constituted by industrial wage-earners, factory workers, the ‘modem proletariat’. For Marx, Engels, Lenin, and their followers, here is the ‘working class’, or at least its ‘core’. For the purpose of discussing Marxist politics, this will do well enough, provided full account is taken of the many problems which the term presents, precisely in the discussion of politics and such questions as the relation of the working class to its political agencies.

The middle strata of the ‘collective labourer’ must be distinguished from the so-called ‘intermediate’ strata of capitalist society of which Marx occasionally spoke* and which comprise a wide range of people often also described in Marxist usage as the petty bourgeoisie of capitalist society—medium and small businessmen, shopkeepers, self-employed craftsmen and artisans, small and medium farmers; in other words, that vast and diverse array of people who have not been ‘proletarianized’, in the sense that they have not become wage and salary earners, and are not therefore part of the ‘collective labourer’, even though they do of course fulfil definite economic tasks.

In its turn, this petty bourgeoisie must be distinguished from the large and growing army of state employees, engaged in administration and in police and military functions.* On the criteria of classification referred to earlier, these state employees are neither part of the working class nor of the petty bourgeoisie: they are, so to speak, a class apart, whose separateness from other classes is bridged by the factor of ideology, which will be considered presently.

To complete this brief enumeration of the main protagonists of class struggle in capitalist society, there remains the capitalist class. This is the class which, for Marx, was so designated by virtue of the fact that it owned and controlled the means of production and of economic activity in general—the great manufacturing, financial and commercial ‘interests’ of capitalist enterprise. The ‘capitalist class’, however, extends well beyond these ‘interests’ and includes many people who fulfil specific professional and other functions on behalf of these ‘interests’, and who are in various ways—by virtue of income, status, occupation, kinship, etc.—associated with them. It is this variegated totality which is also called the ‘ruling class’ in Marxist parlance, a concept which needs further discussion.

The point has already been made, but needs to be stressed, that the capitalist class or bourgeoisie (the two terms are used here interchangeably, unless the text requires specific use) is in functional, sociological and in most other terms an heterogeneous class, with many different elements or ‘fractions’; and while the development of capitalism has fostered an ever-greater interrelationship between different forms of capital, it has by no means obliterated their differences. There are many issues over which the capitalist class as a whole is more or less united, and this unity may assume a more or less solid political expression, and does assume such expression in times of acute class conflict, ‘when the chips are down’. But the economic divisions of the class endure, and so do other divisions of various kinds, according to the particular country in question. The importance of these divisions, from a political point of view, is considerable.

A second question, which has already been encountered in relation to the working class, arises here too, namely the ‘cut off’ point at which the capitalist class ends and the petty bourgeoisie begins. Marx noted that ‘the stratification of classes does not appear in its pure form' and this is certainly true here. Clearly a concept of the ‘capitalist class’ which covers a small entrepreneur employing half a dozen workmen and the owner of a corporation employing thousands leaves something to be desired. There is no conclusive answer to the problem and some degree of arbitrariness in deciding who, in this context, belongs to the capitalist class is inevitable.

Much more important is the by now well-worn question of ownership and control, or ownership versus control, and the degree to which capitalism and the notion of a capitalist class have been affected by the coming into being of an ever-growing stratum of managers, controlling the most important units of business life, yet doing so without owning more than a minute fraction of the assets they control, and sometimes not even that.

There is no point in rehearsing here the arguments which have been advanced on both sides of the question. My own view of the matter is that managerialism, which had already been noted in its early manifestations by Marx, is indeed a major and growing feature of advanced capitalism; and that the separation of ownership and control which it betokens—when it does betoken it—does not affect in any substantial way the rationale and dynamic of capitalist enterprise. Those who manage it are primarily concerned, whatever they may or may not own, with the maximization of long-term profit and the accumulation of capital for their particular enterprise: ownerless managers are from this point of view practically indistinguishable from owning ones. What matters in both cases are the constraints imposed upon those involved by the imperative and objectively determined requirements of capitalist activity. This being the case, it is perfectly legitimate to speak of a ‘capitalist class’, occupying the upper rungs of the economic ladder, whatever its members may own, and controlling the operations of capitalist enterprise. It is the more legitimate to do so in that the ideological and political differences between non-owning controllers and the rest have never been more than negligible, if that.

Ralph Miliband, "Marxism and Politics," Oxford