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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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The word “class” in the social sense is relatively new.
It appears in the English and other Western European
languages at the time of the Industrial Revolution. This
article will emphasize English usage; French and Ger-
man developments are roughly parallel. Before the
1770's, the ordinary use of “class” in English referred
to a division or group in schools and colleges. In the
late eighteenth century we first come upon “lower
classes,” to join “lower orders,” which was a term used
earlier in that century.

As a designation for workers, the terms “poor la-
borer” and “the poor” had been used synonymously
since the sixteenth century, thus pointing to a relation
between poverty and wage earning. By the eighteenth
century a distinction was made between those not able
to work, “the very poor” or “paupers,” and those able
to work, “the laboring poor.” This term is widely used
until and beyond the threshold of the Industrial Revo-
lution and again suggests the connection between pov-
erty and wage earning. But from the early nineteenth
century on, as in the works of Malthus and Ricardo,
the term now in common use is “the laboring classes”
(the term “working class,” or “classes,” makes its ap-
pearance around 1815 in England and around 1830
in France). Function in the economic process replaces
the earlier implicit focus on social rank and hierarchy
of possessions.

Without going into detail regarding the designation
of other social strata, it can simply be noted that
“higher classes,” “middle classes,” and “middling
classes” appear in the 1790's, and “upper classes” in
the 1820's. The “upper middle classes” are first heard
of in the 1890's and the “lower middle classes” in the
present century.

The late appearance of the term “class” does not,
of course, indicate that social divisions were not recog-
nized earlier. But it indicates changes in the character
of these divisions and in attitudes toward them, which
came about with the Industrial Revolution. Class is a
less definite and more fluid term than “rank” or “or-
der,” and the use of this less specific term subtly indi-
cates the erosion since the Industrial Revolution of the
earlier clear-cut hierarchical rank order which used to
govern the English social structure and a shifting of
focus from social status to economic criteria. Slightly
later than in England, but roughly in the same period,
the French terminology shifts from état to classe and
the German from Stand to Klasse.

It is interesting to note in this connection that some
of the new terms, such as “working” or “laboring
classes,” referred to functional contributions in indus-
trial production; others, such as “middle classes” or
“upper classes” still referred only to position in a


hierarchy. The difference between classifications of
people in terms of functional contribution or scalar
positions will be dealt with presently. But before dis-
cussing modern conceptualizations of class a much
older notion needs to be considered, i.e., the repre-
sentation of societies as aggregates of people some of
whom are above and others below. This notion can
indeed be found throughout recorded history. It repre-
sents, in its various forms, the effort of social thinkers
as well as of common men to come to grips with the
stubborn fact of human inequality.

Ideas meant to explain or justify inequality among
men are embodied in a variety of religious myths. In
the Bible, for example, the offspring of Ham, who had
been cursed by Noah, were condemned to eternal
bondage in the service of Noah's descendants. Saint
Augustine cited this in The City of God when he wished
to show that slavery was justified, and medieval theo-
logians used the same story to condone serfdom. Ac-
cording to the Koran, social stratification originates
from the very will of Allah who has decreed, “We have
exalted some of them above others in degrees, that
some of them may take others in subjection” (Sura
XLIII, 31). In the ancient Vedas, a vertical system of
classes, or rather castes, was legitimated by way of an
anatomical illustration. The Brahmins sprang originally
from the lips of Brahma, the Kshatriya from his shoul-
ders, the Vaishya from his thighs, and the Shudra from
his feet. The notion of caste, which may be defined
as “an endogamous and hereditary subdivision of an
ethnic unit occupying a position of superior or inferior
rank or social esteem in comparison with other sub-
divisions” (A. L. Kroeber, “Caste,” Encyclopedia of the
Social Sciences,
New York, 1935), will not detain us
here. While it is of central importance for Indian and
other Asiatic societies, it is of but marginal interest
in the context of the Western world. Note, however,
that the relationship of American Negroes to the white
majority has at least caste-like elements (John Dollard,
Caste and Class in a Southern Town, New York, 1949).

Dichotomous Conceptualizations. While the image
of society as some kind of vertical order is widespread,
the specific forms in which such an order is conceived
has varied considerably throughout history. Perhaps the
most popular conceptualization is one which sees soci-
ety as a dichotomous structure of top and bottom
strata: the rich and the poor, the powerful and the
powerless. Such conceptualizations are most frequently
held by spokesmen for negatively privileged groups
who wish to attack the prevailing system of inequality
(though, as will be seen, these have no monopoly on
such conceptions). For Gerrard Winstanley (fl.
1648-52), representing the extreme radical wing in the
English Revolution, Cain becomes the forefather of the
privileged landed oppressors of the common people.
Cain against Abel; Ishmael against Isaac; Esau against
Jacob—they stood to him and his co-thinkers for those
who had illegally seized power and land and had
turned their brothers into servants. The Levellers saw
the Norman conquerors who had enslaved the English
people as the symbolic heirs of Cain. More generally,
every biblical case in which a good brother confronted
a bad one was used to represent the dichotomous
division of society between oppressors and oppressed,
have and have-nots.

The concrete images of polar divisions between the
top and bottom of society as they appear in history
were, however, not uniform. At least three basic forms
of dichotomy can be discerned, depending on what
aspects of the privileges enjoyed by the upper classes
are perceived as salient. Conceptualization differs de-
pending on whether power, wealth, or relationships
in the process of production are given central emphasis.
Hence we get the dichotomous concept of rulers and
ruled, of rich and poor, or finally, of exploiters and
exploited. These variant formulations are, of course,
not mutually exclusive but occur in a variety of combi-

The primacy of the power dimension is expressed
in such thinkers as Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406): “The
possession of power is the source of riches” (Les pro-
Paris [1936], II, 339). Pre-Marxian and
Marxian socialist doctrine reversed the relation be-
tween power and wealth by stressing that the posses-
sion of economic resources confers social power. The
contemporary social critic, Ignazio Silone, attempted
to come to grips with the characteristics of totalitarian,
post-capitalist society and with the change in class
relations resulting from power superseding wealth. He
quipped, in his The School for Dictators (1938), that
in contrast to the capitalist era which was dominated
by plutocrats (rule by wealth), the totalitarian society
had given rise to cratopluts (rule over wealth).

The relation between those who work and those who
are idle, rather than seen as due to factors of ownership
or power, was most clearly articulated by the rebellious
underprivileged during the waning of the Middle Ages.
“When Adam delved and Eve span,” the impoverished
queried, “Who was then a gentleman?” Such imagery
is common in utterances during a variety of peasant
revolts and jacqueries as well as in such writers as the
Anabaptist leader of a Peasant War, Thomas Münzer
(ca. 1490-1525). Shelley's formulation in his “Song to
the Men of England” is but a reformulation of this

Men of England, wherefore plough
For the Lords who lay ye low?


Wherefore weave with toil and care
The rich robes your tyrants wear?

Yet the use of the image of a dichotomous society
was not limited to the spokesmen for the under-
privileged. For the classical thinkers of antiquity, the
basic division in the social structure was that between
freemen and slaves, and this distinction was said by
Plato and Aristotle to have a biological basis in human
nature. Though Aristotle made more complicated dis-
tinctions when it came to the body of freemen, he was
nevertheless certain that all physical work should be
reserved for the slaves so that the legal division be-
tween free citizens and slaves would at the same time
coincide with the economic division between non-
laborers and laborers.

In the writings of the early Church Fathers, e.g.,
John Chrysostom (329-89), Patriarch of Constanti-
nople, in Homilia, 34, the major problem of social
inequality was discussed not so much in terms of free-
men and slaves or of masters and servants as in eco-
nomic terms; social stratification was seen as based on
relations of ownership. Rich or poor, owners and non-
owners were seen as the two basic strata in society,
no matter whether a specific Christian writer sided
with the oppressed or was moved to defend the inter-
ests of the privileged.

Images of a dichotomous society are likely to conflict
with everyday experience in societies that are at least
as differentiated as those of the Greek polis. Such
dichotomies clash with the perception that there are
gradations of wealth and poverty—and not simply two
classes, rich and poor—and that there are intermediate
strata to be found between freemen and slaves or
between nobles and commoners. Despite the inability
of such dichotomies to encompass the totality of social
differentiation, however, they have continued to be
salient in the whole history of class societies. Among
the reasons for such persistence may be mentioned the
widespread psychological disposition to concentrate on
extremes and to think in terms of polarities. But more
important than such dispositions are those sets of cir-
cumstances which may favor the emergence or per-
sistence of dichotomies.

In the first place, societies may in fact have a bipolar
division so salient that finer gradations appear as of
secondary importance. This is likely to be the case in
slave societies, where, in view of the gulf between
freemen and slaves, further differentiations within these
categories, or the existence of strata—such as the Greek
metics, who belong to neither side of the great divide—
may not be given major emphasis.

In the second place, there are socio-historical cir-
cumstances which, no matter what the objective situa
tion may be, make a dichotomous view of society
agreeable to certain classes insofar as it can help pro-
mote their interests or contribute to the development
of a strong sense of identity and historical mission. The
particular antagonists with whom they are locked in
combat seem to them to dominate society generally.
For the serf, society is composed above all of serfs and
lords; for the industrial worker, it is composed of
workers and capitalists. The existence of other strata
may be known, but they play no central part in the

From the point of view of the privileged classes,
dichotomous images are likely to be prominent when,
as in an estate system, the contrast between the elite
and the rest of the society appears so sharp that further
differentiation between the underlying population can
be safely ignored.

Finally, during periods of intensified class conflict,
it might be to the advantage of rising classes to over-
look intermediary positions and to focus attention on
one basic cleavage. In 1789, all the divisions within
the Third Estate were temporarily pushed into the
background of the consciousness of its proponents. This
cemented all those who fought against the aristocracy.
A few years later, François Émile Babeuf divided the
population of France into 24 million real producers
and one million exploiters (Pages choisies de Babeuf,
Paris, 1935)—totally neglecting those who were in
intermediate positions. And Henri de Saint-Simon used
the dichotomous division between the industrial class
and the idle class for similar ideological purposes
(Manuel, 1956). Similar dichotomous notions are fre-
quent in the nineteenth-century socialist movement
from Chartism (1830-48) to Louis Blanqui and Ferdi-
nand Lassalle.

Tripartite Divisions. Despite the continued appeal
of dichotomous conceptualizations of class structure,
one has always had to contend with rival notions, viz.,
tripartite divisions or more complicated systems of
multiple divisions and gradations.

Perhaps the best known of all trichotomous con-
ceptualizations of class structure is the one Aristotle
described in his Politics (Book IV, Ch. XI, 1295b): “In
every city the people are divided into three sorts; the
very rich, the very poor, and those who are between
them.” We encounter similar conceptualizations in the
Church's interpretation of medieval society as divided
into three basic estates, those who pray, those who
defend the country, and those who toil. And in France,
the image of Three Estates (clergy, nobility, com-
moners) dominated social perception till the eighteenth
century, even though by that time what had once been
conceived as distinctions along functional lines had
already become overt distinctions of privilege. Finally,


as modern capitalistic society replaced the medieval
and post-medieval hierarchy, Adam Smith, in his In-
quiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of
(1776), introduced a new trichotomous scheme
referring to economic functions. The old trichotomy
of priests, knights, and commoners became one of
proprietors of land, proprietors of stock, and laborers.
Society was now divided into those who lived by the
rent of land, those who lived by profits, and those
whose income was the wage of labor.

Thinking in terms of intermediary classes instead of
dichotomies may have various consequences for the
overall conceptualization of a particular thinker. There
are at least two extreme positions in this respect, one
of which is associated with Aristotle, the other with
Marx. For the former, the middle class is—or rather
should be—the basic class, with the rich and the poor
simply deviations from the mean. “The best political
community is formed by citizens of the middle class,
and... those states are likely to be well-administered
in which the middle class is large, and stronger if
possible than both the other classes, or at any rate than
either singly (Politics, 1295b; trans. B. Jowett, New
York [1943], p. 191). For Marx, in contrast, and though
he also at times used the trichotomous scheme of the
political economists, the two fundamentally opposed
classes are the basic classes; the middle class is less
enduring and less stable. It typically is marginal in the
sense that it allegedly will join with one or the other
of the major classes when class conflicts are “inevit-
ably” sharpened. For Marx, a dichotomous scheme is
still dominant, and the trichotomous division is seen
as a deviation which is “by its very nature” only tem-
porary. The radical thinker tends to be drawn toward
dichotomies even when he recognizes that reality does
not correspond to this image. Conservative or liberal
thinkers, however, when they think in trichotomies,
tend to stress the virtues of middle strata as most
conductive to the pursuit of moderate policies.

Multiple Divisions and Gradations. At the begin-
ning of the capitalist era Alexander Hamilton still
proposed a simple dichotomous model of class divi-
sions: “All communities divide themselves into the few
and the many. The first are rich and well-born and
the other the mass of the people who seldom judge
or determine right” (Speech [June 18, 1787], Papers,
ed. H. C. Syrett and J. E. Cooke, 15 vols., New York
[1961-68], IV, 185-200). But given the complicated
and multifaceted class relations in nineteenth-century
America as well as in Europe, and, in addition, the
need to bring definitions of class relations into line with
ideological justifications of the prevailing state of
affairs, such dichotomous notions gave way to more
complicated schemes among those whose social per-
ceptions dominated the scene.

Among the types of perceptions of class relations
that emerged in the nineteenth century—though we
can find approximations much earlier—we may distin-
guish, following Stanislaw Ossowski (1963), between
schemes of simple and schemes of synthetic gradations.
In both cases, instead of viewing the class structure
in terms of the fixed properties of two or more classes,
the relation of higher and lower classes is based on
the grading of some objectively measurable charac-
teristics. In the case of simple gradation, concern is
most commonly focused on gradations of wealth or
income. In this view, relative wealth or income deter-
mines class membership, and assigns respective class
positions in the vertical order. In contrast, ideas about
synthetic gradations reject a simple gradation of classes
in terms of economic criteria and combine these with
the factors of education, occupation, social standing,
and the like.

When diverse criteria are being used in the assign-
ment of class positions, relatively low rank in one
dimension, say income, may be compensated by rela-
tively high rank in another, say education. Such rank-
ing systems hence seem to have certain compensatory
and consolatory functions, which cannot be performed
by systems relying entirely on ranking in the economic
order. When lack of education or inferior birth can
be offset by economic standing, as among the “nou-
veaux riches,” or when inadequate income can be
compensated for by relatively high social status, as in
the case, at least until recently, of college teachers,
such arrangements or perceptions may help combat
alienative tendencies in various sectors of society.

In similar ways, stratifying society into six or more
layers may have additional compensatory functions for
the people involved in all but the very lowest rank.
The finer the gradations and the larger the number
of dimensions used for establishing class position, the
greater, it would seem, the conservative or stabilizing
potential of stratification schemes.

However, it would be a mistake to explain the more
complicated class schemes that have come to be used
in the modern social sciences, as well as in popular
consciousness, by ideological reasons alone. Modern
industrial society has created so complicated a division
of labor and so differentiated and fluid a status system
that any simple classificatory scheme such as prevailed
till the eighteenth century could no longer be adequate.
Or, to put the matter differently, not even in so highly
capitalist a society as that of the United States are
economic criteria likely to be the only ones used in
assigning people relative standing in society.

Max Weber's recognition that exclusive emphasis on
economic factors as determinants of social class was
insufficient to do justice to complex systems of stratifi-
cation accounts perhaps for his current popularity


among social scientists concerned with class analysis.
Weber made distinctions between a variety of sources
of hierarchical differentiation. Among the most impor-
tant he selected class, status, and power. He reserved
the term “class” to designate economic differentiations.
A class, in his usage, was composed of people who
shared common life chances or a similar situation in
the market. Status, Weber's second major dimension
of stratification, refers to the honor or prestige and
hence the amount of deference accorded to individuals
or positions. Status systems are linked to specific life
styles and manners of living. Although Weber was
aware that class and status positions in a given society
are likely to be highly correlated, he performed the
distinct service of highlighting those situations in which
these correlations are less than perfect. For example,
groups with higher status will be motivated to support
manners and values that serve to perpetuate that status,
no matter whether a particular holder of the status
ranks high in an economic class hierarchy. In aristo-
cratic or semi-aristocratic circles people will contend
that their superior life styles entitle them to deference,
regardless of their economic attainments. Thus, even
in capitalist systems, money-making may be considered
vulgar by those in superior status positions, and Boston
Brahmins, just as East Elbian Junkers, may claim the
rewards of high status, such as power, even though
their rank in a purely economic hierarchy may be
relatively low.

Just as at the dawn of the bourgeois era, merchants
were wont to marry their daughters to the scions of
aristocratic families, in effect exchanging the perqui-
sites of class position for superior status, so in the
contemporary world the “nouveaux riches” may,
through marriage, education, philanthropy, or other
means, attempt to acquire a status which is otherwise

Weber's third major dimension of stratification,
power, was defined by him as the ability of a man or
a group to impose its will on others even, if necessary,
against their opposition. Power may flow from the
possession of resources, be they economic or political.
High position in both the status and the class system
may confer power, as may commanding positions in
religious, political, or trade union organizations.
Power, then, is likely to be highly correlated with high
positions in the other two dimensions, yet may also
vary independently from them. In particular, as against
the Marxist contention that the only basic source of
power is the ownership of means of production, Weber
argued that in the modern world commanding positions
in a variety of administrative and bureaucratic hier-
archies may confer social power on men whose purely
economic power is minimal and who have but little
social honor (Weber, 1946).

Since Weber's time, his list of three basic dimensions
in the assignment of rank in modern societies has been
further enlarged, and, depending on the interests and
concerns of the investigators, increasing attention has
been given to such factors as occupational prestige,
education, kinship, ethnic group position, and the like.
Though these dimensions of stratification tend to be
highly interdependent, they nevertheless may vary
independently from one another.

The picture that emerges from this simplified sketch
of contemporary theory of stratification suggests a
complexity of the class system that contrasts sharply
with the stark simplicity of some of the earlier con-
ceptualizations. Although there may be ideological
reasons for the adoption of contemporary views, the
major reason for their prevalence seems to lie in the
fact that, because of their fluidity, contemporary class
systems no longer lend themselves to the relatively
simple categorizations that were more or less adequate
for understanding earlier class structures. Ernest
Hemingway was clearly wrong when, in answering
Scott Fitzgerald's phrase, “The rich are truly differ-
ent,” he said: “Yes, they have more money.” Whether
in the world of the robber barons or in that of The
Great Gatsby,
in the world of Henry James or of
Theodore Dreiser, no man has been simply assessed
on the scale of wealth and income exclusively. Os-
sowski's synthetic gradations are hence likely to remain
the most common way of conceptualizing the complex
class relations of contemporary capitalist and post-
capitalist societies.

Class Differentiation on the Basis of Social Func-
In addition to, and often accompanying, scalar
conceptualizations of social class, functional conceptu-
alizations are discernible from antiquity to the present
day. Society is differentiated into a number of classes
that fulfill different functions in the division of labor,
and this distinctiveness of function determines the
relations between these classes. The various classes
generally are seen as complementary to one other and
mutually interdependent. Some of these functional
theories of stratification stress primarily the contri-
bution this interdependence makes to the total society;
others, particularly Marxian theory, focus on incom-
patibility of interests, antagonism, and conflict.

The functional conceptualization was self-con-
sciously elaborated by Saint Thomas Aquinas, John
of Salisbury, and other medieval Church spokesmen.
They did not deny that society was full of inequalities;
the equality that did exist was purely religious. These
inequalities, however, as they appear in the relation
of master to servant and in the differences in property
or social standing, are legitimized by an ethic of “call-
ing.” It is the duty of every man to remain within his
own class, and to serve others gladly. The teaching of


Saint Paul about remaining “in the calling to which
one has been called” (II Corinthians 7:20) was now
developed into a rational justification of inequality. The
division of labor is the result of inequality in human
endowment and capacities. It behooves man to accept
the inequalities appointed by God, stay in his own
order, and do his own work. Society is seen as an
organic whole to which the various vocational orders
make their peculiar contribution.

Luther's conception of the “calling” is essentially
similar. To him, just as to Aquinas, men as they are
variously placed within the social structure perform
differing and yet complementary functions. One ought
to live within his own class, according to the social
standards of that class, and efforts at individual im-
provement of one's style of life or social position cannot
be condoned. Obedient service in the calling is the first
duty of the Christian.

One difficulty with these and similar functional con-
ceptualizations arises from the fact that, as a contem-
porary sociologist, Ralf Dahrendorf has stated, “The
notion of differentiation does not in itself imply any
distinctions of rank or value among the differentiated
elements” (Dahrendorf, p. 162). That is, an additional
act of evaluation seems to be necessary if we are to
move analytically from differentiations that are rooted
in the division of labor to a rank order in a system
of social stratification. Medieval social theory tends to
obviate the difficulty by explicitly or implicitly ac-
cepting the rank order as it exists within medieval
estate society. As Ernst Troeltsch puts it, “This actual
situation, through its incorporation into the religious
and organic theory as 'vocation,' is idealized and
rationalized” (Troeltsch, I, 295). In the case of Luther-
anism, likewise, and though there appear contradictory
tendencies within it, by accepting the existing rank
order it translated the ideal of a “cosmos of callings”
into a conception of a desirable social hierarchy. Cer-
tain social theorists, more particularly Charles Fourier,
deploring the lack of functional adjustment in their
age, projected utopian images of a future society in
which the specific contributions of differently consti-
tuted individuals would all blend harmoniously into an
integrated whole.

The problem of how to move from the recognition
of differing functional contributions of social classes
to the establishment of a scalar hierarchy still besets
modern sociological theory. It led functional theorists,
such as W. E. Moore and K. Davis (see Bibliography),
to claim that certain contributions are being judged
more essential or “functionally important” for a society
than others, and therefore need the rewards of high
rank. They also claimed that, given the different de-
grees of complexity of different social tasks, those
performing the more complex tasks require longer and
more intensive preparations, and therefore need to
receive greater rewards of power and wealth or in-
come. As in the case of their medieval forebears, the
suspicion is strong that they in fact but rationalize a
given distribution of power and privilege. Moreover,
when these theorists are asked how they establish
which functions are more important than others, they
tend to reply tautologically by pointing to those that
receive greater rewards.

Moving from the facts of differentiation to the reali-
ties of hierarchy has been less serious a problem for
the classical economists ever since Adam Smith enunci-
ated his functional classification: proprietors of land,
proprietors of stock, and laborers. Here tautological
reasoning is avoided. Though these economists agreed
that all three classes made functionally indispensable
contributions to the well-being, stability, and develop-
ment of the whole, they were also at one in according
preeminence to the proprietors of stock, the new capi-
talists, who represented the dynamic principle of the
new industrial order and the progress it promised.

Though by no means oblivious to conflicts of inter-
ests between various classes, the classical economists
nevertheless tended to assume a fundamental identity
of interests common to all classes. It is the rejection
of this postulate which lies at the basis of Karl Marx's
theory of stratification.

The Marxian Scheme. The rejection of all models
of harmonious society, and their replacement by a
conceptualization that lays utmost stress on the funda-
mental conflict of interests between classes is, of course,
at the very core of the Marxian conception. According
to Marx, ever since human society emerged from its
primitive and relatively undifferentiated state, it re-
mained fundamentally divided between classes whose
interests are opposed and who clash in the pursuit of
these interests; the whole of previous social history is
a history of class struggle. With this overriding empha-
sis as a point of departure, Marx used a variety of class
conceptualizations according to the context in which
he wrote and the problem he dealt with.

Marx most frequently saw economic interests as
being rooted in differing positions in the process of
production. Here he integrated the categories of the
classical economists with his basic concept of class
conflict and viewed the relations between the classes
of landowners, industrial capitalists, and wage earners
as antagonistic rather than harmonious. Where the
classical economists had seen this tripartite division as
eternally given in the natural order of things, Marx,
in tune with his relativizing historicism, saw such rela-
tions as typical only for specific historical periods, as
a historically transient state of affairs. Though all pre-


vious historical periods were marked by class struggles,
these struggles differed according to historical stages
of production. In contradistinction to his radical pred-
ecessors, who had tended to see history as a monoto-
nous succession of struggles between rich and poor,
or between the powerless and the powerful, Marx
maintained that, though class struggles had indeed
marked all history, the contenders in the battle had
changed over time. Though there might have been
some similarity between the journeymen of the late
Middle Ages, who waged their battles against guild-
masters, and modern industrial workers, journeymen
were yet in a functionally different situation from
modern proletarians struggling with modern factory

Although Marx used a functional analysis of classes
in terms of position in the economic process, which
was ultimately derived from the classical economists,
he also wrote about class in a variety of contexts which
show that this was by no means the only connotation
of the concept. In particular, and in tune with the other
great intellectual tradition to which he was indebted,
that of German idealism, Marx used a notion of class
in which class consciousness or class awareness became
central. Here economic or social factors were supple-
mented by social-psychological ones. Though an ag-
gregate of people, he argued, may all occupy similar
positions in the process of production and hence have
objectively similar life chances, they become a class
as a self-conscious and history-making body only if they
become aware of the similarity of their interests. An
objective economic class, a Klasse an sich (“class in
itself”), becomes a Klasse für sich (“class for itself”)
only if its members, through a series of conflicts with
opposing classes, have acquired an awareness of the
communality of their interests. And only such self-
conscious classes can be said to be capable of changing
the course of history; classes lacking such psychological
bonds between their members remain impotent. (Marx
expected that in time deprived classes would neces-
sarily acquire such consciousness; Communist Mani-
1848, and passim.)

Most of the time Marx was drawn to a drama-
turgical vision of society, a dichotomous conception
in which two major classes preempted the center of
the scene, even though an intermediary middle class
might at times appear on the stage—only to be ground
down by powerful grindstones: the two major class
antagonists. Yet we encounter also different types of
schemes. Sometimes, as in the final, uncompleted
chapter of Das Kapital (1867-95) which represents his
most self-conscious effort to present a theory of strati-
fication, Marx adopted the trichotomous functional
scheme of Adam Smith, e.g.: “the owners merely of
labor-power, owners of capital, and landowners, whose
respective sources of income are wages, profit, and
ground-rent...” (Das Kapital, Vol. III, last chapter).
Sometimes, more particularly in his historical writings,
he adopted a multidimensional scheme, as when in his
Class Struggles in France (1850) he distinguished be-
tween the class interests of the financial and those of
the industrial bourgeoisie; or when in The Eighteenth
(1852) he talked about the class interests
which divide the owners of capital and the owners of
land. In addition, the rural population is sometimes
seen as a specific class in Marx's historical writings,
as is the Lumpenproletariat (“dregs of society”), so that
we obtain an image of society, which, far from the
usual dichotomic or trichotomic image, is differentiated
into several strata with multiple interests. When Marx
wrote as a propagandist, he used the stark imagery of
a simple polarity of interests between two basic classes.
When he wrote as a social analyst or historian, dichot-
omous concepts appeared inadequate and he used a
more complex scheme which, though less serviceable
as a means of energizing social consciousness, proved
more in tune with actual complexities. The class
schemes he used depended on the direction of his

There are still other interpretations of class phe-
nomena in the work of Marx. Although the major
emphasis is on the separation between those who own
the means of production and those who, owning no
means of production, must sell their labor power, at-
tention is sometimes focused on the opposition of those
who work and those who do not, or of those who
employ hired labor and those who do not. In the first
case, a wealthy farmer who employs a few hired hands
is not reckoned among capitalists; in the second, he
is. Enough has been said to document the fact that
the Marxian scheme of class analysis is by no means
as uncomplicated or unitary as both proponents and
adversaries of his theories have often made it appear.

Yet all such variations in Marx's scheme must not
obscure the major difference between this and other
theories of stratification. As distinct from all social
theories that see society as a layer cake in which strata
are simply superimposed upon one another, classes in
Marx's view are essentially conflict groups. They gain
their identity and the realization of the communality
of their interests in confrontations and clashes with
other, antagonistic, classes. Ultimately, then, classes are
always power phenomena. The class struggle is a
struggle for power between rulers and ruled, between
oppressed and oppressing classes. Class relations, by
their very nature, are asymmetrical relations in which
those above and those below, exploiters and exploited,
contend with each other for dominance. Man will truly


come into his own, Marx contended, only when all class
struggles which have so far characterized human his-
tory will culminate in a classless society in which the
strife of classes will be replaced by an ultimate har-
mony of cooperatively producing men no longer di-
vided by divergent interests.

The Fact and the Scandal of Inequality. Defenders
of the status quo, when they did not have recourse
to “functional” justifications, have most frequently used
two strategies in order to cushion the impact of in-
equality on the underlying population. They have ei-
ther referred to the transitoriness of human life and
the promised righting of earthly imbalances in privi-
leges and rewards in the afterlife; or they have at-
tempted to show that social inequalities were but a
result of natural differences in biological endowment.

Echoing, as he so often does, previous Christian
conceptualizations in secular form, Diderot wrote in
the article “Société” in the Encyclopédie, “There is
no more inequality between the different stations in
life than there is among the different characters in a
comedy: the end of the play finds all players once again
in the same position, and the brief period for which
their play lasted did not and could not convince any
two of them that one was really below the other.” Yet
without promise for rewards in the hereafter, such
stress on the unimportance of class distinctions, sub
specie eternitatis,
was not very likely to command
assent in the modern age.

A stronger impact and social efficacy was provided
by theories of differences in natural endowment from
the days of the ancient Greeks to Vilfredo Pareto and
the prophets of the modern eugenics movement, such
as Francis Galton and Karl Pearson, as well as their
utopian forerunner Thomas Campanella.

Ever since the eighteenth century, opponents of the
status quo have rejected the otherworldly justification
of human inequality; their arguments are so well-
known that they need not detain us here. As to the
argument from biological inequality, social reformers,
like the French disciples of Locke (Helvétius and
Condillac), either contended that all men were biolog-
ically similar at birth, or, like Rousseau, argued for a
sharp distinction between two kinds of inequality,
natural and moral: “I perceive two kinds of inequality
among men: one I call natural or physical...; the
other might be called moral or political” (Rousseau,
Second Discourse). Denying that there were any neces-
sary correlations between the two, he questioned
“whether rulers are necessarily worth more than the
ruled, and whether strength of body and mind, wisdom
and virtue are always found in the same individuals,
and found, moreover, in direct relation to their power
and wealth...” (Discours sur l'origine de l'inégalité;
in Contrat social, new ed., Garnier, Paris, n.d., p. 39).

Rousseau posits the moral equality of men in the
state of nature and contends that only upon leaving
that state, through the emergence of private property,
did class distinctions emerge in civil society. Not phys-
ical inequalities, such as those based on differences in
health or bodily strength; only political inequalities
were morally and socially relevant.

The stress on private property rather than human
nature as the root of inequality remains central in the
pertinent discussions from Rousseau to Marx. Thinkers
in this general tradition do not differ so much in their
views regarding the origin of class differences, which
all of them seek in historical development rather than
in biological or theological factors, but, rather, in their
opinions as to their permanency. Conservatives such
as Lorenz von Stein and liberals such as the British
utilitarian political economists consider them an in-
eradicable feature of modern societies. In contrast,
socialists and radicals envisage a future society, if only
as a kind of asymptotic goal, in which distinctions of
class and rank are abolished. Radical and socialist
theories look upon the present order as merely tran-
sient and emphasize a dialectical tension between a
provisional state of affairs and an ultimate classless

Equality of Opportunity. There is yet another posi-
tion which needs detain us—if only because it has
become a vital component of the common conscious-
ness of modern America, and, though to variant
degrees, of all industrial societies: the notion of equal
opportunity within societies of unequals. This notion,
though discernible among the forerunners of Saint-
Simon, has been fully articulated by the master and
his disciples. Saint-Simon retained what had been,
despite Rousseau and radicals such as Morelly, the
major eighteenth-century view that the maintenance
of civilization required the preservation of inequality
in wealth and status. But in contrast to his eighteenth-
century ancestors who had argued that the inequalities
were necessary to force men, indolent as they were
by nature, to submit to the necessity of work and
industry, he elaborated a distinctive defense of inequal-
ity: since men are unequal in their capacities a society
is needed where each can function according to his

In tune with the émigré traditionalists and such
representatives of a new physiology and psychology
as M. F. X. Bichat and P. J. G. Cabanis, Saint-Simon
opposed the egalitarian tendencies of the disciples of
Locke and stressed the existence of natural inequalities
among men. The good society, he argued, was indeed,
as the philosophes had said, a society congruent with
what is natural in man—but what was natural was


inequality rather than equality. The ideal society was
seen as a harmonious association between men who
were fundamentally different in their essential natures
and capacities. Men fall essentially into three types:
those with rational scientific capacities who will be the
leaders and guides of society; those with primarily
motor capacities apt mostly for manual labor; and
those with sensory capacities who would be artistic
and religious performers. Each man would express his
own deeper nature and contribute to society in terms
of his natural endowment.

Similar ideas about innate differences have, of
course, been expressed by writers ever since Plato and
Aristotle. What is new, however, is Saint-Simon's em-
phasis on the need to organize society in such a way
as to “afford all members of society the greatest possi-
ble opportunity for the development of their faculties”
(Notice historique, in Oeuvres de Saint-Simon et
47 vols., Paris [1865-76], I, 122). Equality
of opportunity rather than equality of condition,
equality at the point of departure in a man's adult life
cycle rather than equality of status, is the hallmark
of Saint-Simon's doctrine. This idea has become a major
emphasis in Western social and popular thought.
Whether in British liberal or Fabian thought of the
nineteenth or early twentieth centuries, in Pareto's
notion of the circulation of the elite, in similar con-
ceptualizations by Mosca, or in contemporary socio-
logical theories such as those of S. M. Lipset, the stress
at the point of departure on openness of opportunity
and equality has been pervasive. In America, in partic-
ular, equality of opportunity, whether as a description
of what allegedly exists or as an ideal, has become part
of an expected ideology which permits a reconciliation
between ideals of individualistic achievement—in the
tradition of the Protestant Ethic—and the tradition of
political equalitarianism. Although men receive un-
equal rewards or goods and power, so it is argued, they
have nothing to complain when, given equal opportu-
nities, their differential positions express only their
differential capacities.

In the mid-twentieth century all industrial societies
continue to be class societies with sharp differentiations
between top and bottom strata and a very large mid-
dle-class bulge, in which people are assigned to their
class positions largely, though by no means wholly, in
terms of imputed merit and achievement. Ascribed
characteristics, such as those that come with birth and
kinship, have receded in importance while achieved
characteristics have gained ascendancy. Although
Saint-Simon's ideal of a totally open society has not
been attained, and although certain social strata, espe-
cially among American Negroes and some other mi-
norities, still suffer from severe social disabilities, con
temporary industrial societies both East and West have
come so near the image of their desire that there must
be great rejoicing in heaven among Saint-Simon and
his disciples.

Whether the present stress on “meritocracy,” to use
Michael Young's telling phrase (1959, passim), might
in due course be followed by a counter-tendency em-
phasizing a reduction or elimination of factual differ-
ences in power and reward, only the future can tell.


Stanislaw Ossowski's seminal work, Class Structure in the
Social Consciousness
(New York, 1963) is a basic source,
especially for the first part of this article. Other books
covering aspects of the subject: Goetz A. Briefs, The Pro-
(New York, 1937); Ernst Troeltsch, The Social
Teachings of the Christian Churches,
2 vols. (London, 1931);
Ralf Dahrendorf, Essays in the Theory of Society (Stanford,
1969), esp. Chs. 6 and 7; Raymond Williams, Culture and
(New York, 1963); Frank E. Manuel, The New World
of Henri Saint-Simon
(Cambridge, Mass., 1956); Michael
Young, The Rise of the Meritocracy (New York, 1959); Hans
Gerth and C. Wright Mills, trans. and eds., From Max Weber:
Essays in Sociology
(New York, 1946); Reinhard Bendix and
Seymour M. Lipset, eds., Class, Status and Power, 2nd rev.
ed. (New York, 1966). Cf. also K. Davis and W. E. Moore,
“Some Principles of Stratification,” American Sociological
10, 2 (1945); Melvin Tumin, “Some Principles of
Stratification: A Critical Analysis,” American Sociological
18, 4 (1953), and “On Inequality,” American Socio-
logical Review,
28, 1 (1963). Also useful are the entries under
“Stratification, Social” by Bernard Barber and Seymour M.
Lipset, International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences
(New York, 1968), Vol. 15.


[See also Economic History; Education; Equality; Hierar-
chy; Ideology; Marxism; Property; Socialism; Utopia.]