Social Classes in Classical and Marxist Political Economy

By Milios, John | The American Journal of Economics and Sociology, April 2000 | Go to article overview

Social Classes in Classical and Marxist Political Economy


Milios, John, The American Journal of Economics and Sociology


JOHN MILIOS [*]

ABSTRACT. The notion social class attains a well-defined theoretical content in the works of the classical political economists, who defined classes on the basis of the specific income form that each category of people (class) obtains. This approach to class constitutes a first form of a "friendly merger" between political economy and sociology. When combined with the classical labor value theory, it has led to a theory of class exploitation of the laboring class by the capitalist class. As economic theory became increasingly apologetic after the "Marginalist Revolution" (setting itself the aim of justifying capitalism), the theory of class has been totally banished from the corpus of "modern (neoclassical) economic science." This paper claims that the scientific elements inherent in classical political economy's class theory were preserved by the Marxist class theory, which further revolutionized the classical approach, creating a new, purely non-economistic and non-mechanistic "relationist" class theory, an d forming thus a vivid economic-sociological approach to social classes. On the basis of the Marxist approach, complex problems concerning the class structure of contemporary societies can be tackled.

I

Introduction

THE THEORY OF CLASSES MAKES UP one of the most controversial chapters of the social sciences, in the sense that it comprises a forefront of confrontation between the different theoretical schools that are formulated within the field.

To clarify what is to follow, I therefore reiterate the position that was stated by de Ste. Croix: "It seems to me hardly possible for anyone today to discuss problems of class, and above all class struggle (or class conflict), in any society, modern or ancient, in what some people would call an 'impartial' or 'unbiased' manner, I make no claim to 'impartiality' or 'lack of bias,' let alone 'Wertfreiheit,' freedom from value-judgements" (1983, p. 31).

The purpose of this paper is to show that social classes can be scientifically defined and investigated only from an economic-sociological point of view, i.e. on the basis of a "friendly merger" between political economy and sociology. In this framework, I will defend the ability of Marxist class theory to form such a "friendly merger" for investigating the structure of modern capitalist societies.

II

Social Classes in Classical Political Economy: An Early Formulation of the "Friendly Merger"

THE NOTION OF SOCIAL CLASSES acquires for the first time theoretical-analytical content in the works of the classical school of political economy, beginning in 1776 with Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations, and ending in 1848, with John Stuart Mill's Principles of Political Economy with some of their Applications to Social Philosophy (Roll, 1989, Rubin, 1994).

The notion of social class first appears, of course, in ancient Greek and Roman society. However, for the ancient writers, social class consisted of either a clear descriptive term with practical use in the formation of the "commonwealth" of the city (separation of the free citizens into "classes" according to the amount of property), or as a normative notion (a description of an ideal social organization, in the framework of which are determined the "classes," by mainly political criteria). [1] The approaches to class during the Middle Ages had a similar normative character.

The precursors of classical political economy were, of course, the physiocrats, who articulated a concept of social class on the basis of a series of theoretical deductions. However, the society (and the classes) that the physiocrats described was a model that they were dreaming of imposing upon France with the assistance of the monarchy: an agricultural-capitalist society that derived its characteristics a) from the conviction that only agricultural economy can create a surplus above the costs of production, and b) from the idealization of certain elements of British capitalism in the second half of the eighteenth century. …

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