“In his study of Fanon’s revolutionary nationalism, the late political theorist and political prisoner James Yaki Sayles notes that Marx defined class in terms of individuals sharing (1) a common position in relation to the means of production (that is, as producer, owner, exploited and exploiter); (2) a distinct way of life and cultural existence; (3) social interests that are antagonistic to those of other classes; (4) a communal, national or international unity transcending local boundaries; (5) a collective consciousness of themselves as a class; and (6) a political organization serving as a vehicle for their class interests. [T]he present global class structure is the product of political activity by and for the core-nation working class and rejects any opportunistic suggestion that the latter is a purely passive recipient of unsolicited imperialist patronage.” - Zak Cope, “Divided World Divided Class”
Stating the problem
The roots of the problem regarding the mainstream Marxist view of class analysis originates in the terms used by Marx in “The Poverty of Philosophy”: class-in-itself and class-for-itself. According to this notion, class-in-itself is determined by the economic position people have, and class-for-itself is people sharing an economic position acting in their objective interests.
In this view, only economic relations determine class-in-itself, while class-for-itself is characterized by organization and solidarity. There are only two outcomes from this notion:
either objective relations automatically become subjective, since politics is about realizing interests and objective economic relations determine interests (economic determinism);
or since objective economic relations don’t “express” themselves in subjective politics, there’s a need for an “external agent” (in some unrefined versions of Leninism) to express objective conditions into subjective ones (voluntarism).
Another component of this argument is a simplistic understanding of classes as either proletarian or bourgeois, with little attention paid to middle classes, how hey are formed, and why they don’t behave in proletarian ways (which is generally dismissed by appealing to false consciousness).
We can instead take another approach. Class should be understood as a relation between the objective positions people occupy in the social division of labor (understood as determined by economics as well as ideology and politics), and the collective struggles they partake in at given moments of history. As a corollary, class struggle is then the management of this relation between objective positions and collective struggles.
This approach solves the two possible problems originating with the mainstream conception: 1. if class exists solely as determined by economic relations, then it is not a very useful analytical tool in explaining history (as they are simply collections of individuals who share similar life experiences); 2. if classes are only understood to be political forces, then history is entirely arbitrary. On the other hand, understanding class as a relation between positions in the social division of labor and collective political-ideological struggles is both useful in the explanation of historical facts, useful politically, and enables communists to effectively understand class structures in order to formulate political programs. The question then becomes one of forming the proletariat into a class.
With economic criteria, we discern the relations of production people partake in.
The main economic relation in capitalist society is capital. As such, in order to understand one’s position in the social division of labor, we should look at how people relate to capital. Distinctions between economic positions are arrived at by looking at economic ownership and economic management. These distinctions are particularly relevant in appraising the role of managers and similar ambiguous positions.
Economic ownership (concrete, not legal) is the effective control of the products of labor. This is the defining characteristic for who is a capitalist and who isn’t, as this is the personification of capital accumulation;
Economic management is the effective control over the process of production, it administers the technical requirements of production and makes it possible, fulfilling the functions of capital. This may or may not be separate from economic ownership, depending on the type of business.
So then, on the dominant side of capital we have:
Traditional/entrepreneurial capitalists: these are characterized by a position of economic ownership as well as one of economic management; they are bourgeois insofar as they employ wage labor;
Executives/CEOs: characterized by a position of economic ownership as well as economic management, the only distinction with entrepreneurial capitalists being they don’t have legal ownership; they too employ wage labor;
Managers, foremen, etc.: characterized by a lack of economic ownership, but in a position of economic management and hence fulfilling the functions of capital. In this sense, they are part of the new petty bourgeoisie (the name is provisional); they don’t directly employ wage labor, they simply manage the process of production and make sure labor power is able to bring a profit;
Traditional petty bourgeoisie: characterized by economic ownership and a position of management, but doesn’t employ wage labor; they are generally self-employed.
Now, as for the subordinated side.
Given the political economy of capitalism, we know the main relation of production is that of productive capital, which produces surplus value while reproducing the material elements required for the reproduction of capitalist relations of production, i.e. labor involved in production. Generally, this means those who deal with industrial capital: wage-earners involved in mining, manufacturing, construction, transport and agriculture. This economic position gives the proletariat not only the status of exploited workers, but also implies that this class is characterized also by its ability to organize a communist system of production. As such, the main economic criterion for those who are employed as wage laborers is whether or not their labor is productive for capital.
Political and ideological criteria
Economic position doesn’t alone determine one’s standing in the social division of labor understood broadly. I will be brief.
In terms of political criteria, we have political relations of subordination within the workplace. Meaning, supervisory activity and guard labor enforces a form of political domination, of supervision, over the direct process of production. This bars supervisors from the position of being proletarian and lands them in the position of being part of the new petty bourgeoisie, enforcing the political domination of capital within the workplace.
In terms of ideological criteria, we defer to the distinction between mental and manual labor. The division between mental/manual labor and monopolization of mental labor by a stratum of workers (experts) creates the ideological effect (and domination) of excluding the manual laborers from the knowledge of the production process. This criterion is relevant in order to understand engineers and technicians as part of the new petty bourgeoisie; more specifically, white-collar workers.
Forming the proletariat into a class
“The immediate aim of the Communists is the same as that of all other proletarian parties: formation of the proletariat into a class, overthrow of the bourgeois supremacy, conquest of political power by the proletariat.” - Marx and Engels, “Communist Manifesto”
An analysis of the objective places people fill in the social division of labor leads to an understanding of what the possibilities of class formation are. It’s not a question of discovering the proletariat, it’s a question of forming it into a class.
“Insofar as millions of families live under conditions of existence that separate their mode of life, their interests, and their culture from those of the other classes, and put them in hostile opposition to the latter, they form a class. Insofar as there is merely a local interconnection among these small-holding peasants, and the identity of their interests forms no community, no national bond, and no political organization among them, they do not constitute a class. They are therefore incapable of asserting their class interest in their own name, whether through a parliament or a convention.” - Marx, “The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte”
This distinction is important because it transcends the two problems appearing in mainstream Marxist class analysis: either classes become political agents spontaneously, or they require a voluntarist external agent. These distinctions were the bedrock for arguments over forms of political organization (such as vanguard vs. social democratic party, etc.).
In reality, organizations should be understood as agents of class formation that aren’t external to the class and aren’t activating some sort of inherent potential, but neither are they free from determination or spontaneous. The point of communist organizing is creating a collective political agent of proletarians qua proletarians, who self-identify as such and understand their primary identity as being that of a member of the proletariat. If workers are organized on other collective identities (as taxpayers, as citizens, or what have you), then that is a failed attempt at class formation. With this framework, we can say classes are the relation between objective positions in the social division of labor, and collective political action.
Implications for socialist construction
Revisionism always has a social base. In the USSR and China, using the framework of analysis outlined here, we can identify the engineers, highly paid workers, managers of enterprises, white-collar workers, etc. It has been argued that the wage-grade system implemented in China was the breeding grounds of revisionism (http://anti-imperialism.com/2013/10/06/the-wage-grade-system-breeding-ground-of-revisionism/), as it creates different positions within the social division of labor which form the social basis for anti-proletarian and revisionist elements within the party. Understanding the social division of labor in this way makes us understand what could be the social basis for revisionists trying to bring a socialist country to a non-socialist path.