Class and Marxism: Some Points for Discussion
Leong Yew, Research Fellow, University Scholars
Programme, National University of Singapore
Although the term, class, has a much longer etymological heritage, it is today
virtually inseparable from the embrace of Marxism. At its broadest sense, class
refers to divisions or groupings of people that are usually in accordance with
some form of ranking or hierarchy. Such a description is too general to mobilize
consciousness about the widespread inequality or the social effects resulting
from the relations between different classes, particularly after the onset of
industrialization in Western societies. As a consequence, Marxist thought pegs
class into two senses of historicity: a present phase constituted by an exploitative
relationship between the capital-owning class and the proletariat; and a teleology
represented by the movement from primitive forms of communalism, to various
phases of capitalist modes of production, and on to the final stage of a classless
communist society. Class, as Anthony Brewer asserts, is via Marxism more effectively
understood as "opposing positions within a structure of social relations"
rather than simply "groups of people" (11-12). These oppositions identify
the elements at the heart of domination and exploitation, the emergence of interclass
conflict when the working class becomes aware of the inequities between classes,
and provide for liberation beyond capitalism.
For postcolonial studies, class as a category is important in the operations
of colonial and imperial discourse as well as enables different strategies of
- The inequality of classes and the exploitation of the proletariat within
individual Western societies provide an economic model for both horizontal
and vertical class divisions throughout the world. During the height of European
imperialism, these class structures were reproduced at the colonial peripheries
as the indigenous population came to be veritable extensions of the metropolitan
working class, while the devolution of colonial authority led to the creation
of smaller, educated indigenous elites forming the perfunctory localized capitalist
class. While Marx never produced a theory on the development of class system
within the imperial world, it is V.I. Lenin who developed this in Imperialism:
The Highest Stage of Capitalism. This exploitation of peripheral labour
and repatriation of raw material persists until the present time and continues
to be noted as a more enduring form of imperialism, sustained by American
capitalism, and also through the uneven forces of globalization, underdevelopment,
and dependency. Immanuel Wallerstein and Andre Gunder Frank are notable scholars
of contemporary dependency theory. Although the era of formal European imperialism
has ended, the class structures imposed on its colonies remain ambiguously
rigid. Independence in many new nation-states did lead to the expansion of
an educated middle class, but class divisions remained as did the potential
for class conflict. Moreover, the assumption of capitalism in its now globalized
form meant the creation of a supra-national class system. Two types of economic
processes dominate this system. First, the traditional economy based on the
production physical commodities sustains the exploitation of Third World countries
as sources of cheap raw material and labour. Second, the more advanced form
of capitalism goes beyond physical commodities but emphasizes "intellectual"
products like knowledge, computer software, cultural artefacts and so on.
These later types of capitalism continue to reinforce class hierarchy by placing
the developed countries firmly in control of the intellectual modes of production.
- The intractibility of class structures constructs different forms of consciousness
and perceptions of truth or normality. The ideas of the capitalist class have
often been noted as the dominant ideas of society (quote
by Karl Marx). Hence the prevailing "narratives" about a society's
history, norms, social roles and responsibilities, and expectations of interclass
mobility are not objective truths but strategies used to enforce a stable
class system. Similarly these ideas of the capitalist class are adapted in
the colonized areas so as to make the indigenous population a docile and compliant
labour force. For example, race can become intertwined with class in which
"Whiteness" becomes synonymous with authority and the ruling class,
while being coloured meant the acceptance of oneself as inferior, doomed to
an unexplainable yet self-evident fate of hardship and acceptance of White
- One of the major tropes in colonial discourse is "otherness,"
predicated largely through gender, racial, and cultural differences. Through
this colonial discourse mobilizes a wide array of measures to separate the
colonialist self as not simply "different" from the colonized other,
but as superior to the varyingly feminine, exotic, mysterious, barbaric, and
childlike ways of the native. Such measures legitimize colonialism in many
ways: by representing the native as feminine, imperial power comes to be seen
as the masculine hero to the rescue; by depicting the native as childlike,
the colonial master is seen as a benevolent father. The notion of "class"
offers colonial discourse analysis an additional element to consider as part
of the many markers of difference. In this case indigenous populations become
other through their participation in the mode of production and ownership
of capital (or lack thereof) as masses of people subjected to domestication
of imperial capital.
- The concept of "class," once accepted as materially real, becomes
the collective site for resistance. Although class is as equally problematic
and arbitrary as gender and race, its reification is a form of strategic essentialism
that mobilizes different political activities. In the first few decades following
the end of the second world war, class distinctions were vital in order for
Marxist (or Marxist-inspired) anti-colonial revolutionaries to design a course
of action against colonialism. Typically, the quest for independence took
place at many levels: the indigenous working class in opposition to the now
delegitimized "foreign" capitalists; the merging of nationalism
with the proletariat and the conflation of capitalism with imperialism; and
in many cases, the recognition that colonialism was as much a mental or psychological
state as it was formal and physical (see Frantz Fanon). These sites of resistance
did not just produce nationalism but also gave rise to exceedingly large cultural
movements using different modes of aesthetic expressions.
- Amin, Samir. Unequal Development. Hassocks: The Harvester Press and
New York: Monthly Review Press, 1986.
- Barone, Charles A. Marxist Thought on Imperialism: Survey and Critique.
Armonk: M.E. Sharpe, 1985.
- Brewer, Anthony. Marxist Theories of Imperialism: A Critical Survey.
London, Boston, and Henley: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980.
- Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. Trans. Constance Farrington.
New York: Grove Press, 1963.
- Lenin, V.I. Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism. Peking:
The Foreign Language Press, 1975.
- Robinson, Cedric J. Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition.
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.
- Wallerstein, Immanuel. The Modern World System. New York: Academic
The foregoing discussion represents some of the more general ideas about class,
Marxism, and their relationship with imperialism. Much more discussion about different
variations of Marxist thought and their views about class are warmly invited.
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22 April, 2002