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December 1998

Here’s another essay where the title is misleading. As usual, I began with the titles intention, but ended up focusing on an interesting historical debate between Lenin and Kautsky on Class, Party and Revolution. There’s also a bit of Marx at the beginning and Weber at the end. It doesn’t really attempt to analyse modern political societies, but if the title had been changed, I think it would have made a good little essay!


Evaluate attempts to analyse the political processes of modern societies in terms of ‘class’

Marx places great emphasis on the importance of class and specifically the antagonism and struggle between different classes. He asserts that there have been classes throughout written history, "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles."(1) However in modern society there exists "two great hostile camps"(2); the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. The hostility lies in the fact that their relationship is subordinate and exploitative, nevertheless, it is just this antagonism that provides the stimulus for social change. Historically the classes have changed as the economic base of society has changed. Prior to capitalism, a number of antagonisms existed between "Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed."(3) Under capitalism, the various struggles and antagonisms were simplified to the two main conflicting groups. The bourgeoisie dominate and exploit the proletariat on a number of levels although their ownership of the means of production is paramount.

The proletariat, without private ownership of the means of production, have been forced to sell their wage-labour in order to live. They are therefore bitterly reliant upon the bourgeoisie, who "possess the means of production in the form of commodities - that is, the land, buildings, machinery and raw materials involved in production", whilst the bourgeoisie employers live on the profit that they can extract from proletariat labour. The bourgeoisie has an objective interest to exploit the workforce by, for example, lowering wages and increasing work-hours. This obviously conflicts with the aims of the proletariat who, according to Marx, have an objective interest to be part of the class struggle, even though they may not be immediately aware of their situation.

Capitalism, as a mode of production, contains many inherent contradictions. As capitalism develops and the bourgeoisie search for profit intensifies; factories and workshops of increasing size bring larger numbers of workers into close contact with one another. An awareness of the shared social and economic conditions of the workforce develops, leading to ties of solidarity that had previously been non-existent. These workers form a class, the proletariat, and through their awareness of each other, a class consciousness, whereby they act collectively to promote and protect their interests. In contrast, the largely self-sufficient peasant producer, working a specific plot of land in a previous mode of production, remained ignorant of the vast mass of others in an almost identical situation. These peasants never developed a class consciousness and despite their numerical strength do not, according to Marx, constitute a class at all.

This class consciousness manifests initially in the form of sporadic strikes and matures from these experiences into the "formation of local unions and thence to the unification of labour movements upon a national level and to their extension into the political sphere."(4) The existence of bourgeois democracy can be utilised by the labour movements with the formation of labour parties that can increasingly challenge and alter the dominant order. Marx predicts that, with the development of capitalism, the bourgeoisie will diminish numerically as the proletariat increase. With the politicisation of the proletariat in those countries that have "strong democratic traditions,"(5) Britain being a classic example for Marx, the revolution could be accomplished peacefully, although violent confrontation would be the most likely method.

There is some ambiguity about Marx’s approach to class, as he never provides "a systematic analysis of the concept"(6) This has led to sharp distinctions in interpretation and fierce debate between Marxists in the twentieth century. Much of the debate centres on the role of parliamentary democracy that can, from one viewpoint, provide the peaceful means by which the proletariat can take control of state power; from another, it is just a covert method of perpetuating capitalism. It is worth briefly looking at a prime example of how these different interpretations clash through the dispute between Kautsky and Lenin.

Kautsky was a leading figure in the German Social Democratic Party and had worked with Marx and Engels, he has thereby been "widely regarded as the third leading figure in Marxist theory."(7) Kautsky strongly believed that the proletariat victory in the class-struggle was inevitable, although not immediate. The proletariat awareness and development of a class consciousness is a gradual unifying process, in which the training and education of the masses in socialist production is a prerequisite for the final transformation from the existing order to socialism. This entails a long struggle, not against the existing order, which is a natural instinct from their degraded condition, but in the form of class-struggle. It does not require a violent insurrection as the revolutions of the past, for in modern capitalism the means to power is political; "Every class-struggle is a political struggle."(8) The socialist democratic parties operating in Europe are the natural developments of the labour movements. Even those working class parties that do not strive for revolution do not receive Kautsky’s condemnation, for although reform only eases the pressure and does not end exploitation, the fact that the proletariat is actively operating politically has significant consequences. "Whenever the proletariat engages in parliamentary activity as a self-conscious class, parliamentarism begins to change its character. It ceases to be a tool in the hands of the bourgeoisie."(9) The Socialist parties, revolutionary or not, are, in effect, preparing the way for the inevitable political ascendancy of the proletariat.

Kautsky criticises the violent seizure of power in Russia, as premature and the establishment of a single-party authority that, under the guise of ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’, was potentially, if not actually, despotic and a betrayal of the Marxist commitment to democracy. Russia had yet to develop a strong class consciousness amongst the workers, if indeed from Marx’s description above, they constitute a class at all. Russia’s mode of production was still primarily feudal, with only rudimental elements of capitalism in operation. Kautsky accuses Lenin of ignoring the lessons learnt by Engels from the failure of the Paris Commune which had shown "that the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready made state machinery, and wield it for their own purposes."(10) The Bolsheviks had been inflicted by the "children’s disease"(11) that Kautsky had warned of in The Class Struggle (1892). This ‘disease’ inflicted socialist movements that were still young and impatient, without an explicit understanding of the class-struggle or the patience to gradually elevate the mass of the working-class. The Russian Revolution had been a serious misinterpretation and misunderstanding of both Marxist theory and practice. Not only had the revolution held back Russian emancipation, but it also had severe consequences throughout Europe that undermined the growing European socialist parties.

Lenin was "the leader of the first revolution explicitly affiliated to Marxist ideas,"(12) he was therefore under no obligation to counter criticism that originated from outside Russia. The fact that he felt it necessary not only to reply to Kautsky, but also to personally attack his character, reflects something of Kautsky’s stature and influence. Before the revolution, the younger Lenin viewed Kautsky as a great Marxist teacher and showing him "almost reverential respect".(13) After the revolution and Kautsky’s accusations and criticism, Lenin denounced ‘the renegade Kautsky’ and Kautskyism as a betrayal of Marxism in much the same manner and terminology as he had been attacked.

Both Kautsky and Lenin agree that Socialism depends upon revolution to overthrow bourgeoisie capitalism and the development of class consciousness amongst the workers. Kautsky emphasises the development of class consciousness as a necessary prelude to revolution, to take place peacefully through the ballot box. In contrast, Lenin emphasises the need for revolution, to act as a catalyst for the development of class consciousness. It is this divergence in emphasis that leads to their very different approaches to the role of class. Both Marx and Kautsky claim that class consciousness originates from collective working-class action, such as sporadic strikes, and through this development evolves into the labour movements. Lenin’s approach takes the theoretical link between collective action and the development of class consciousness still further; suggesting that when the working-class collectively partakes in the intensity of revolutionary activity, the development of class consciousness correspondingly intensifies. As "The proletariat would learn to play its revolutionary role during a revolutionary upheaval,"(14) a developed class consciousness, though necessary for Socialism, is not a prerequisite for revolution.

Lenin finds little evidence of revolutionary zeal amongst the European labour movements. These movements are little more than examples of ‘trade-union consciousness’ in practice. Although they unite in their struggle against employers, their objectives are primarily for self-gain. They may aim to secure higher wages and possibly lobby the government for welfare legislation, but this does not guarantee that they will form political parties to further their cause. Similarly, the socialist parties that do evolve from the labour movements are unlikely to achieve, or even want to achieve, anything more than reform. "Revolution and Socialism are not a natural outgrowth of these processes."(15)

Lenin believes that parliamentary democracy, despite permitting representation from all areas of society, intrinsically benefits the bourgeoisie and capitalist interests. The formation of socialist parties, even if dedicated to the revolutionary ideal is a futile gesture. The function of the revered democratic system is to decide every few years who controls the debate within parliament and continues the illusion that power is answerable to, and exercised for, the people. This would not change even if socialist parties were to become numerically dominant within parliament. The great power of parliament is a fallacy as government policy is enacted by the civil service bureaucracy that, unaccountable to the people, ultimately serves the interests of the ruling class.

As the working-class, even the advanced industrial proletariat, are unlikely to develop an immediate radical class consciousness, they need the impetus of revolutionary leadership. According to Lenin, this "can only be supplied by intellectuals, trained to take a ‘broader view’ and educated in the theory of socialism."(16) This leadership does not come from the ranks of the proletariat, but from bourgeois intellectuals who, for whatever reason, decide to defect. Marx is a classic example of a bourgeois intellectual whose writings have been so influential in furthering the cause of Socialism. The proletariat are the revolutionary class. However, whilst still burdened with the pressures of capitalism, they can not be relied upon to develop Marxist theory into revolutionary practice. Lenin’s solution to this paradox was the formation of the vanguard party; a group of highly disciplined ‘professional’ revolutionaries whose purpose was to instigate the uprising. The autocratic nature of such a concept has always been controversial and has been criticised as a significant departure from Marxist theory. Nevertheless it was certainly used successfully to instigate a revolution in Russia, which though rapidly developing industrially, was still relatively ‘backward’ by comparison with Western Europe.

The Russian Revolution was not the form of revolution envisaged by Marx and it is arguable whether it was a development of Marx’s ideas. Despite Lenin’s continual use and reference to the texts and comments made by Marx and Engels in justifying his actions, he appears to have ignored the idea of proletariat self-emancipation through the class-struggle. Kautsky applies great importance to the gradual, internal development of class consciousness, which would, through the class-struggle, naturally lead to both the will and the ability for working-class emancipation. In contrast, Lenin forces revolution externally upon the proletariat, completely by-passing the class-struggle, in the belief that class consciousness and emancipation will result.

In contrast to Marxist theory, Weber holds the belief that a proletariat revolution is not only undesirable but also, theoretically and politically unlikely. He rejects all philosophical theories of history, believing that all the various countries and cultures of the world developed quite uniquely. Both Hegel and Marx had been greatly mistaken in their suggestion that there were observable patterns in history that were determinant and could be applied universally. Such ‘pseudo-scientific ideas’ are to Weber, "excessively naive and dangerously misleading."(17) Modern capitalism is not therefore the next inevitable stage of history after feudalism, but a uniquely Western phenomenon. Weber attributes the ‘uniqueness of the West’ to the development of rationality. Only in the Occident has knowledge been rationally systemised and its pursuit efficiently advanced by specialisation. The consequences of such a development have been radical and overwhelming, defining a distinctly Western approach to most disciplines including science, politics, art and even architecture.

Weber considers modern capitalism as "the most fateful force in our modern life"(18), having far-reaching consequences with the introduction of rationality. Within modernity, each capitalistic venture is only undertaken after calculations of likely return have been made and this can only be possible, with any form of reliable predictability, after certain requirements have already been met. There are a number of prerequisites needed to ensure that a venture will be successful or profitable, including the monetization of all commodities, the operation of a rational legal system and the availability of free labour that can be efficiently organised, as and when needed.(19) Weber believes the growth of rationality to be beneficial for the West, however, he is not so optimistic about the accompanying spread of bureaucracy. He considers bureaucracy to be an essential component of modern capitalism, for its proven efficiency in the organisation of routine tasks. However, bureaucracy is not confined to the civil service, as suggested by the Marxists, but is spreading and enveloping ever more numerous forms of large-scale organisations in all spheres of social, political and economic life. Weber, in agreement of the Marxist critique, raises concern on the undemocratic nature of bureaucracy and in many ways forewarned the continual spread of hierarchical bureaucratic domination transcending the Russian Revolution.

The analysis of rationalisation and bureaucratisation is of greater value for Weber than the analysis of class, for they provide a clearer understanding of modernity. Weber recognises class as only one factor effecting the distribution of power in modern society along with the related, but quite distinct, phenomena of status and party. An individual’s class is not defined by his relationship to the means of production, but by his market situation. A class constitutes a group of men who share common opportunities for income. These opportunities may be based upon the ownership of property or exchangeable commodities; or in the form of services or labour that they can supply. The forms of income, being reliant upon ‘supply and demand’ economics, are dictated by market values and define a ‘class situation’. Thus, in modern capitalism, "class situation is...ultimately market situation."(20)

Each of those who share a particular class situation may wish to pursue their own interests in a variety of ways. There is no reason to suppose that their interests will be pursued collectively, or will involve antagonism directed at those in a different class situation. Weber does not dismiss the possibility of collective social action by those who share a particular class situation; but this does not constitute a social force, nor should it necessarily develop into one. "The emergence of an association or even of mere social action from a common class situation is by no means a universal phenomenon."(21)

Weber considers the relationship between individual class situation and class unity as somewhat precarious, whereas status situation provides a relatively cohesive group formation. He describes an individual’s status situation as founded upon the prestige and esteem that others (either positively or negatively) attribute to him. A number of individuals sharing a similar status position constitute a status group whose internal solidarity, based primarily upon a shared style of life, provide common life experiences, interests and expectations. Weber uses the rather extreme example of "the phenomena of pariah peoples"(22) to illustrate the operation of a particular status. Pariah peoples form communities and largely segregate themselves from the rest of society. Within the community, they "acquire specific occupational traditions...and cultivate a belief in their ethnic community."(23) The members of this community may, from one perspective, fulfil the requirements of a particular status position; from another, they may be divided into different class categories. Weber’s identification of status groups is relevant to the debates concerning class-struggle, for it shows that society can be divided into powerful relationships that operate outside of economics.

Weber believes that society is too diversified for revolutionary unity, for class and status may represent conflicts of loyalty for the individual. The formation of a united proletariat in Marx’s theory of class struggle is thereby severely weakened. There is, however, general agreement that class represents the clearest indication of economic position in modern society, although how far class effects the politics of a society is debatable. For Marx, the economic hierarchy corresponds with the hierarchy within society, in that those in the most advantageous economic position are able to exert their ideologies upon society. Whereas, Weber disputes the importance of class and asserts other factors that may, or may not, be more significant.



  1. Karl Marx & Frederick Engels - MANIFESTO OF THE COMMUNIST PARTY p.32
  2. Karl Marx & Frederick Engels - op. cit. p.33
  3. Karl Marx & Frederick Engels - op. cit. p.32
  4. Anthony Giddens & David Held (ed.) - CLASSES, POWER, AND CONFLICT p.6
  5. Anthony Giddens & David Held (ed.) - op. cit. p.7
  6. David McLellan – THE THOUGHT OF KARL MARX p.182
  7. Barry Hindess – POLITICS & CLASS ANALYSIS p.25
  8. Karl Kautsky – THE CLASS STRUGGLE p.184
  9. Karl Kautsky – op. cit. p.188
  10. Preface to the 1872 edition of Karl Marx & Frederick Engels – MANIFESTO OF THE COMMUNIST PARTY p.2
  11. See Karl Kautsky – op. cit. p198
  12. Anthony Giddens & David Held (ed.) – op. cit. p.7
  13. From Robert C. Tucker’s introduction to - Karl Kautsky – op. cit. p.4
  14. Tony Wright – SOCIALISMS: OLD AND NEW p.92 His italics
  15. Anthony Giddens & David Held (ed.) - op. cit. p.7
  16. Anthony Giddens & David Held (ed.) - op. cit. p.7
  17. Anthony Giddens & David Held (ed.) - op. cit. p.9
  19. As businessmen require constant reassurance that their investments will be profitable. This list of prerequisites has continued to grow.
  20. Taken from Max Weber – ‘Class, Status and Party’, Economy and Society, vol.2 quoted in Anthony Giddens & David Held (ed.) – CLASSES, POWER, AND CONFLICT p.62
  21. Taken from Max Weber – ‘Class, Status and Party’, Economy and Society, vol.2 quoted in Anthony Giddens & David Held (ed.) – CLASSES, POWER, AND CONFLICT p.62 Weber used the example of a trade union to describe ‘an association’
  22. Taken from Max Weber – ‘Class, Status and Party’, Economy and Society, vol.2 quoted in Anthony Giddens & David Held (ed.) – CLASSES, POWER, AND CONFLICT p.66
  23. Taken from Max Weber – ‘Class, Status and Party’, Economy and Society, vol.2 quoted in Anthony Giddens & David Held (ed.) – CLASSES, POWER, AND CONFLICT p.66




Patrick Dunleavey & Brendan O’Leary


(MacMillan Press, 1987)

Anthony Giddens


(Cambridge University Press, 1991)

Anthony Giddens & David Held (ed.)


(MacMillan, 1984)

David Held


(Polity Press, 1996)

Barry Hindess


(Blackwell, 1987)

R. N. Carew Hunt


(Pelican Books, 1969)

Karl Kautsky


(W. W. Norton & co., 1971)

Karl Marx


(Cambridge University Press, 1994)


(Progress Publishers Moscow, 1977)

Karl Marx & Frederick Engels


(Lawrence & Wishart, 1991)


(Foreign Languages Press Beijing China, 1990)

David McLellan


(MacMillan Press, 1995)

Max Weber


(Urwin University Books, 1970)


(Cambridge University Press, 1994)

Frank Parkin


(Tavistock Publications, 1979)

Tony Wright


(Routledge, 1996)

Erik Olin Wright


(Verso, 1979)

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