Reason #11—We Need Marx’s Class to Learn from History
To see this, it helps to look at how Marx arrived at his definition of class based upon history. He stressed that today’s class divisions have not always existed. He built on the understanding that, for around 100,000 years, deep into pre-history, most of us lived communally with the main division of labor being between the sexes. The female gave birth, raised the children and maintained the home, which made her dominant in most of these societies. The men served her and the family.
With the agricultural revolution, the accumulation of private property made men, those biologically more natural to leave the home and buy, sell and transport goods, the controlling gender. Those men who were positioned to accumulate more private property than others became a ruling class. They became emperors and kings, while others became serfs, and some people themselves became property--they were enslaved. With the development of the Roman, Greek and Germanic empires, fairly fine-tuned concepts of class became matters of legal definition. When American history started, when the merchant classes started overthrowing kings and queens, the ruling class distinction became who controls the money and who sells themselves to the rich in order to live.
About a century later, in The Principles of Communism, Engels defines the most important class divisions as follows:
"(1) The class of big capitalists, who, in all civilized countries, are already in almost exclusive possession of all the means of subsistence and of the instruments (machines, factories) and materials necessary for the production of the means of subsistence. This is the bourgeois class, or the bourgeoisie.
"(2) The class of the wholly propertyless, who are obliged to sell their labor to the bourgeosie in order to get, in exchange, the means of subsistence for their support. This is called the class of proletarians, or the proletariat."
What Americans think of as middle class may be white collar or blue collar, but it is identified by home ownership (well, a mortgage), a little lawn and a few luxury items that are more or less necessities in our electronic society of suburban sprawl. This is not the middle class Marx describes, the bourgeoisie, those who pay others to work for them. Marx's definition of a middle class applies to very few Americans, and, as small businesses lose out to multinational corporations and the contraction of Internet commerce, it will apply to fewer and fewer. About 300 billionaires own more than all of the accumulated wealth of half of the world's people. Marx predicted that, as those billionaires trump one another in business, their numbers will dwindle, and the numbers in poverty will increase.
This is how the division between the haves (bourgeoisie) and have-nots (proletariat) deepens, and as more and more production becomes possible with less labor under fewer corporate umbrellas, Marx projected the emergence of a new class. In many ways, the new class is virtually anyone reading these words based upon our common future. The new class is both those who still have jobs (but no security) as well as those who have, as a group, become permanently unemployed. The proletariat, the old “working class,” is becoming the new class, and others are joining their ranks, including small business owners being thrown out of the capitalist class. Both the proletariat (a term Marx borrowed from Roman society) and the new class are enormously unifying tools as concepts, but Americans have many obstacles to grasping them.
The language of class came from Marxism, but it is so grossly distorted that today, “middle class” means to Americans what Marx meant by “proletariat” (which literally means working class) while we don’t even have a name for what Marx meant by “bourgeoisie,” which doesn’t mean “middle class” in our sense, but the group of people who pay others to work for them. [That’s some people we know, usually small business owners going through financially rough times.] When Marx talks about the alienated worker, he’s talking about all of us who sell our days for someone else’s profit margin. [That’s probably you and me and almost everyone we know].
Americans tend to believe that capitalism is the way things have always been and always will be because we are deliberately taught not to understand our history as a history of such class antagonisms—not block to block differences but huge differences based on who controls the "money" (actually, whatever's making the world go around at any given point).
In public schools, for the most part, the classless societies that predate feudalism are ignored, just as the communism of early Christianity is glossed over in Sunday school classes. We don't see capitalism as a stage of development that liberated a growing middle class from imperial rule while creating and enslaving new classes. Instead, we draw conclusions about human nature without looking at class antagonism, and so we, judge historical choices as a series of individual decisions with no meaningful social context.