Class and Civil Society: The Limits of Marxian Critical Theory

By Jean L. Cohen | Go to book overview

Chapter 2 The Philosophical Presuppositions of the Class Theory

Class versus order: the step beyond Hegel

Marx's class theory begins with the "discovery," of the proletariat as both the problem and the solution to the tensions of modern civil society. He was, however, as he himself admits, certainly not the first to recognize that the reproduction of civil society depended on the formation of a social class excluded from both the general welfare and the political life of that society—the class of wage workers. 1 Theorists representing all sides of the political spectrum had already discovered the plight of the working masses in modern society. Political liberals like John Locke, despite his celebrated notions of the individual and his rights in civil society, reflected seventeenth-century (English) bourgeois prejudice with statements to the effect that although the "human beings of the labouring class were a commodity out of which riches and dominion might be derived . . . the labouring class was rightly subject to, but without full membership in, the state." 2 Reactionary German romantics focused on the misery of the working man, and one of the "fathers of sociology," Lorenz von Stein, elaborated an empirical analysis of the situation of the working class and the means to better its lot. 3 French socialists pointed to the same problem, advocating measures that ranged from Fourier's utopian communities to Louis Blanc's social workshops. And somewhere in between there was Saint-Simon, the advocate of the rational development of science and technology by an elite of engineers who would guide the Industrial Revolution toward happiness and satisfaction for all. 4 What distinguishes Marx from these thinkers is his integration of philosophy and sociology into the framework of a class theory that leads him to consider the proletariat as a unique class, able to solve both its own problems and those of civil society as a whole.

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