Marxist Class Analysis: A Living Tradition in Australian Scholarship

By Barnes, Thomas; Cahill, Damien | Journal of Australian Political Economy, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

Marxist Class Analysis: A Living Tradition in Australian Scholarship


Barnes, Thomas, Cahill, Damien, Journal of Australian Political Economy


The Marxist approach to class has long been criticised within the academy. Many scholars have suggested it is no longer relevant, if indeed, it ever was, for understanding contemporary economies and societies. This article examines the recent trajectory of class analysis in Australia within the context of such criticism and changes within the capitalist economy and society that some claim make Marxist class analysis redundant. The article contends that such critiques significantly misinterpret the Marxist conception of class and miss recent developments within Marxist class analysis which attempt to account for changes within the capitalist economy. While the article takes a long-term view, plotting changes in class analysis since the 1970s, we are particularly concerned with the generation of new ideas and approaches in the last decade. Although not comprehensive, we argue that the evidence presented here is indicative of broader trends within Marxist scholarship.

The article proceeds by, firstly, reiterating some of the main criticisms of Marxist class analysis. Second, the article reiterates the basic propositions of Marxist class analysis and acknowledges some of its main limitations. Third, we trace the decline of class analysis in the last three decades. Using an empirical study of class in Australian social science journals, we find indicative evidence of a fragmentation of scholarship, with small groups of researchers continuing to produce innovative ideas about class in a context in which class has declined as a source of debate and interaction, particularly among sociologists. The article concludes that Marxist class analysis remains a living tradition in Australian scholarship and outlines novel attempts to renovate the Marxist approach to class by Australian scholars since the 1990s. We argue that it is possible to use these insights to begin to remap contemporary capitalist societies.

Criticism of Marxist Class Analysis

Criticism of Marxist class analysis has a long history. One perennial line of attack has been to deny the coherence of class as a concept. The extreme liberal position is exemplified by the work of Mises who argues that because individuals are the basic social unit, the concept of social class is nonsensical: 'In studying the actions of individuals, we learn also everything about collectives and society. For the collective has no existence and reality but in the actions of individuals' (Mises, 1976: 81). Another influential critique of Marxist class theory comes from Weber who, while not rejecting the concept of class, argued that status and rank were often more important than class position in shaping political action and social allegiance.

More recently, class has again been under intense attack from those who question its utility as an analytical tool for understanding political economic developments during the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Pakulski and Waters (1996) exemplify the range of criticisms levelled against Marxist class analysis in recent decades. They argue that Marxist class analysis has failed to account for three major changes to capitalist societies. First, they argue that Marxist class analysis does not account for 'legal-political' changes, including the rise of political elites, whereby 'political ranking displaced class division' (Pakulski and Waters, 1996: 45) and the growth of the welfare state, which mitigated class inequalities and rendered class identity far less salient. Second, they argue that 'market-meritocratic' changes, including the growing importance of stratification based upon differences in knowledge and skill, 'challenges the economic-productive determinism inherent in all versions of class theory' (Pakulski and Waters, 1996: 36). Third, they argue that the increasing salience of 'cultural-symbolic' identification, including 'ethnicity, race, gender, lifestyles and consumption' (Pakulski and Waters, 1996: 45) cannot be accounted for by traditional Marxist theory.

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