“Marxian Class Analysis, Theory and Practice”: online seminar by Richard D. Wolff, a review

“Marxian Class Analysis, Theory and Practice”: online seminar by Richard D. Wolff, a review

(A version of this article was published in Blogcritics on December, 2010)


Production of goods and services is a material necessity of every human society. 

Production of surplus is another material necessity if a society is to sustain itself since not everyone is a producer. Organization of production in terms of appropriation and distribution of the finished product, including the surplus, is one of the key features that distinguish human societies from other kinds.


These are pretty straightforward propositions, and they form the basis of Marx’s economic and sociological analyses. It’s not on account of this, however, that Marx’s analysis suffers from disrepute. It’s in disrepute because of his application of these premises. 

I’m speaking here mainly of his surplus theory of value and his class analysis. The first hinges on exploitation as the chief means of securing and disposing of the surplus. And the second — well, it hints at the idea of class struggle. 


Both notions are unpalatable to the common sensibility we’ve come to associate with a genteel and enlightened society, especially one that bills itself a liberal democracy. The first on strictly moral grounds and the usual denial takes the form of talk in terms of profit or return on investment — both morally neutral turns of phrase, we’ve been made to believe. And the second? 

 Well, it’s simply antithetical to the very principles on which any liberal democracy is presumed to be founded. I’m speaking here of principles that espouse individual equality under the law — which, in my mind, translates to “equal moral worthiness of persons” — liberty and natural rights.

It stands to reason that anyone steeped in this ideology should find either notion abhorrent and against the grain.  


The notion of exploitation is usually explained away by reference to capital investment and, ultimately, the idea of economic freedom. Likewise, with the concept of class struggle! Since we’re supposed to be equal, the very idea seems preposterous.  

That’s why a liberal democracy and the capitalist system of production are such happy bedfellows and tend to reinforce one another. And indeed, since the former has the desirable effect of making us feel good about ourselves, the idea of exploitation is unthinkable.   

That’s also why Marx’s socioeconomic analysis has all the markings of a repressed kind of discourse, no less repressed than, say, the kind of discourse hinted at by Freud when he introduced the concept of the unconscious. 

 Indeed, even the most progressive forces of the Left shy away from Marxian discourse. Witness Paul Krugman, for instance, or any other Nobel Prize Laureate in economics: rarely, if ever, is their work couched in anything even approximating Marxian terms.


We should note that Marx’s isn’t the only definition of class and class structure. The theories of class based on property or political power are much older than Marx’s, and they still exercise decisive influence on everyday thought. 

The same goes for the theory of class based on consciousness: you are who you think you are, regardless of how they peg you. 

Marx’s contribution, however, is invaluable to our understanding of class structure. It forms an all-important adjunct to the older conceptions.


The French Revolution provided the impetus. Despite radical redistribution of political power and property, not to mention the most radical change in consciousness, the high-sounding slogan which had prompted this epochal event — Liberté, égalité, fraternité — failed to materialize. 

Marx traced the abject failure to not going the extra step: restructuring the workplace so that the workers would have total control over the means of production and the disposition of the finished product, including the surplus — in short, the communal type of organization. (I suppose the same criticism applies to the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.)


The following table offers a fair, albeit schematic representation of Marx’s analysis of human societies in terms of organization of production:

TYPE OF CLASS                         ORGANIZATION                        PRIVATE                           MODERN

STRUCTURE                               OF PRODUCTION                    PROPERTY                          FORMS

 NON-EXPLOITATIVE                    Ancient                                      Yes                                  self-employed

(producers/community             Communal                           held in trust                        partnerships

of producers control                                                                  or in common                     cooperatives

disposition of product,                                                                                                              joint ventures

including the surplus)                      

EXPLOITATIVE                                 Slavery                                         Yes                               sex workers

(producers have no say,                                                                                                           professional athletes

in the matter)

                                                            Feudal                                         No                               traditional households



                                                         Capitalist                                     Yes                                wage/salaried workers                                                                                                


Note that the status of property is not a determinant as to whether the economic system in place is an exploitative one. Feudal class structure, for one, as defined by organization of production, was exploitative, yet landed property was being assigned or held in common. Conversely, the “ancient” class structure, as exemplified by, say, self-employed persons or the artisans of old –think of the cottage industry in pre-industrial England — was non-exploitative in the Marxian sense of the term. Yet, the private property system remained intact.

Consequently, there is no necessary entailment in either direction. Admittedly, the matter of private property is somewhat murky under the cooperative mode of organization. Is the property “private” when it’s held in trust or in common? Can we even speak of property in the latter instance? 


Such questions are not easily answerable, but they needn’t detain us here. Suffice to say that on Marx’s analysis of class structure in terms of organization of production and exploitation, the status of property is not a decisive factor.

Also, note that each of these organizational forms, and the corresponding class structure, may co-exist within any given society (although some of them may be more dominant than others). Ours is a perfect example. Though the vast majority of the populace stands in the employer-employee relationship to one another and, in Marxian terms, in a relationship marked by exploitation, this arrangement by no means preempts the entire field!


To wit, many Americans are self-employed and proud of it. There’s nothing like being your own boss, and that sentiment, understandably, is shared by almost everyone. Some are virtual slaves, and many others — members of a household — re-enact what amounts to a feudal type of relationship and class structure. 


Indeed, even the communal forms abound in what surely is a capitalist system of production.

Apart from the most prominent examples such as cooperatives, partnerships, and what else have you, perhaps the most telling are the networks. I’m speaking here of software engineers and Silicon Valley techies quitting their regular jobs and getting together, usually in somebody’s garage or in Starbucks, to form joint ventures. And the underlying idea is “innovation” since the corporate environment is stifling, and the term in use is “innovative entrepreneurship.” Little do they know that what they’re engaging in, the class structure they’re re-enacting day in and day out, is communal, straight out of Marx’s playbook.


Lastly, the same person may well partake in multiple class relationships in their lifetime. A gang member, for instance, may be gainfully employed while the bulk of their time and related activities place them within a feudal class structure. 

And it’s likewise with a respectable software engineer — Neo from Matrix comes to mind –who, in his spare time, runs a profitable business as a computer hacker. Similarly, while exploited in the workplace, a good and unsuspecting hubby could well be taking advantage of his dutiful wife. The very same wife, if also employed, could be experiencing a double whammy at home and in the workplace.


The last-mentioned scenario explains why so many American households are turning into “single-parent households.” It’s not a “moral crisis” as the religious Right would have us believe. It’s simply the case of the women having their fill and saying “No.” Yet the Left, for its unfamiliarity with, or natural resistance to, Marx’s class-analytics, is at a loss to counter this little tidbit of conventional wisdom with a hypothesis of its own.


So much for setup, and it’s more than ably argued in Richard D. Wolff’s first of the five-part online seminar, “Marxian Class Analysis, Theory and Practice.” I

I won’t bother you with the rest, except for two salient points. The first offers an insightful analysis of the conditions in the wake of the Russian Revolution of 1917. Our (mis)understanding of those conditions, the situation on the ground, is so skewed in fact that there can only one plausible explanation: the Soviet experiment, perceived by the Western powers as an imminent threat, was vilified from the very start (which suggest that apart from repression, vilification is perhaps the most efficacious line of attack against unpalatable views).  

If there’s a moral to the story, it is this. Socialism or communism, insofar that either implies statism — state control of industry and commerce — has nothing to do with Marx’s idea of organization of production along the communal lines. Unfortunately, the architects of the Russian Revolution hadn’t a clue.! 

The second point is relatively straightforward. It touches upon the American labor movement and the failure of the Left: in focusing on improving working conditions and the rate of pay, the question of exploitation remained unaddressed.


This article s no revolutionary tract. I’d have no idea how to implement the taking over the abandoned factories or the means of production, nor do I know whether such a project is even possible.  The Take (aka “the Argentine experiment”) — a documentary by Naomi Klein — provides some basis for hope. But then again, we’re talking about different mentalities, cultures, and histories of political and economic institutions. 


Suffice to say, Marx’s theory of class structure in terms of exploitation as the chief determinant of class relationships offers a unique perspective, to say the least. Professor Wolff does excellent public service in providing this seminar online, and I can only urge you to take advantage of it.

Even if you don’t become convinced, you will have gained an invaluable tool to help you understand present-day events, our economic crisis included, in an entirely new way. 


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