Classes, Social

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Classes, Social


“Large groups of people differing from each other by the place they occupy in a historically determined system of social production, by their relation (in most cases fixed and formulated in law) to the means of production, by their role in the social organization of labor, and, consequently, by the dimensions of the share of social wealth of which they dispose and the mode of acquiring it. Classes are groups of people one of which can appropriate the labor of another owing to the different places they occupy in a definite system of social economy” (V. I. Lenin, Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 39, p. 15).

This definition by V. I. Lenin is applicable to the classes of a society that has internal antagonisms. The relations between such classes inevitably lead to class struggle. However, classes also remain in socialist society after exploitation has been ended. The complete abolition of class divisions of society is possible only at the highest stage of development of productive forces and production relations: it requires not only abolishing private ownership of the means of production, but also overcoming the old forms of social differentiation of labor and the essential distinctions between town and country and between intellectual and physical labor.

Relations between classes in socialist society are founded on common labor and collaboration, and not on exploitation and mutual struggle. Under socialism, society is no longer divided into groups of people organized so that one group can enjoy the fruits of another’s labor because of the place it occupies in the economic system of the society. In this respect, the root causes of class division have already been eliminated. Nonetheless, even the classes of socialist society display important features described in Lenin’s definition. These are classes that are brought together by the socialist economic system, by uniform public ownership of the means of the production, and by common labor; at the same time, these classes still differ from one another in their relations to the means of production, roles in the social organization of labor, and forms of distribution of the society’s income.

The scientific theory of classes was worked out as a result of a lengthy development of social thought. It was known long ago that society is divided into aristocratic and nonaristocratic, wealthy and poor, and so forth. But these distinctions were explained as being the will of god, the result of fate, the fruit of human nature, or the result of some similar cause. The first steps toward explaining the economic basis of the division of society into classes were taken by French and British economists around the turn of the 19th century—to a certain extent by F. Quesnay, but chiefly by A. Smith and D. Ricardo. However, although they explained the existence of classes by distinctions in sources of income, Smith and Ricardo could not explain the more profound causes of the class division of society, which are rooted not in the manner of distribution but in the manner of production. Moreover, Smith and especially Ricardo looked upon the division of society into classes in a nonhistorical way; they considered capitalist relations to be natural and eternal.

The historical development of the struggle of classes in the epoch of bourgeois revolutions was reflected in the works of French historians of the first half of the 19th century, including J. N. A. Thierry, F. Mignet, and F. Guizot. They saw these revolutions as a manifestation of the struggle of the Third Estate, especially the bourgeoisie, against the feudal lords. They sought the key to understanding political history in people’s property relations and in the material circumstances of the different classes. However, the French historians, too, could not reveal the genuine basis of the class division of society. They explained the origin of classes by the subjugation of some peoples by others. They recognized only the class struggle of the bourgeoisie against the feudal lords as “legal” and condemned the class struggle of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie.

Unlike the bourgeois economists and historians, the Utopian socialists condemned the exploitation of man by man and called for ending it. Several of them, for example, Saint-Simon, came close to understanding the historical process as a struggle of classes. But most of the Utopian socialists thought that socialism would be realized as a result of the establishment of harmony between classes. The Russian socialists and revolutionary democrats, especially N. G. Chernyshevskii and N. A. Dobroliubov, took a serious step forward in the development of the theory of classes. As Lenin said, the compositions of Chernyshevskii are “breathing the spirit of the class struggle” (ibid., vol. 25, p. 94). “In terms of benefits, all European society is divided into two halves,” wrote Chernyshevskii: “one lives at the expense of the other’s labor, the other by its own labor; the first prospers while the second suffers need. . . . This division of society based on material interests is reflected in political activity as well” (Poln. sobr. soch., vol. 6, 1949, p. 337). Russian revolutionary democrats placed their hopes in the revolutionary struggle of the toilers and on the victory of the peasant revolution. Yet, because of the immaturity of capitalist relations in Russia, they could not provide a strictly scientific definition of classes or understand the historical role of the proletariat.

The discovery of the universal historical role of the proletariat was made by K. Marx and F. Engels, who used a materialist understanding of history to elaborate the scientific theory of classes. The most important principles of this theory were formulated by Marx in a letter to J. Weydemeyer dated Mar. 5, 1852: “What I did that was new was to prove (1) that the existence of classes is only bound up with particular historical phases in the development of production, (2) that the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat, and (3) that this dictatorship itself only constitutes the transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society” (K. Marx and F. En-gels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 28, p. 427). Having linked the existence of classes to definite historical phases in the development of production, that is, to definite modes of production, Marxism discovered the material foundations of the class division of society and the most profound sources of class antagonisms. Marxism proved that division into classes does not accompany all phases in the development of society; it has arisen historically and consequently is a historically transient phenomenon.

Among all peoples class-differentiated society arose as the primitive communal systems dissolved, although the time of this phenomenon varied: in the Nile, Euphrates, and Tigris river valleys it was at the end of the fourth and beginning of the third millennium B.C.; in India and China during the third and second millennia B.C.; in Greece during the first millennium B.C.; and later in Rome.The rise of classes becomes possible only when the growth in the productivity of labor leads to the appearance of a surplus product and common ownership of the means of production is replaced by private property. With the appearance of private property, unequal property-owning within the commune becomes inevitable. Some clans and families grow rich while others grow poor and economically dependent on them. Elders, military leaders, priests, and other persons of the clan aristocracy use their positions to become rich at the expense of the commune.

As Engels demonstrated in his work Anti-Dühring, relations of supremacy and subordination arose in two ways: (1) by way of the shaping of an exploitative elite within the commune and (2) by means of the enslavement of prisoners of war captured during clashes between communes. These two phenomena are closely intertwined. The development of production, the growth of trade, and an increase in the population destroy the former unity of clan and tribe. Because of the division of labor, there appear cities which become the centers of crafts and trade. On the ruins of the old clan structure a class-differentiated society arises, with a characteristic antagonism between the classes of exploiters and exploited. The ruling classes are the owners of all, or at least the most important, means of production and thus enjoy the labor of the oppressed classes, which are wholly or partly deprived of control of the means of production. In all societies with class antagonisms, the ruling classes, which represent a minority of the population, concentrate in their own hands the management of production and the leadership in state affairs; they turn intellectual labor into their own monopoly, and the great majority of the population, which belongs to the oppressed classes, is condemned to hard physical labor.

Slavery, serf ownership, and hired labor are three modes of exploitation that replace one another; they represent three stages in a society that has class antagonisms. Under the first two systems of class exploitation, the direct producer, whether slave or serf, was juridically deprived of all or some of his rights and was personally dependent on the owner of the means of production. In these societies, “the distinction between classes was found in an estate division of the population as well and was accompanied by the creation of a special juridical place in the state for each class. . . . The division of society into classes is a common feature of slave, feudal, and bourgeois societies, but in the two former there existed estate-classes, whereas in the latter the classes are not estates” (Lenin, Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed. vol. 6, p. 311, note).

In analyzing the class structure of society, Marxism-Leninism distinguishes between basic and nonbasic classes and also notes the presence of various groups and strata within classes and the interstitial strata between classes. The term “basic classes” means those whose existence follows directly from the predominant mode of production in a given socioeconomic formation. But alongside the predominant mode of production there may be preserved in the class formations vestiges of former modes of production, or offshoots of new modes of production may arise in the form of special structures in the economy. The existence of nonbasic, transitional classes is linked with this phenomenon. In the capitalist countries where significant vestiges of feudalism have been preserved, there exist as nonbasic classes the landlords, who increasingly fuse with the bourgeoisie. Most capitalist countries have a large stratum of petite bourgeoisie, including artisans and small peasants, which becomes ever more differentiated from the bourgeoisie to the extent that capitalism is developed. By subjugating to the most cruel exploitation not only the proletariat but also a large part of the peasantry, capitalism creates the conditions that make it possible to draw the toiling peasantry, the exploited majority of the peasantry, over to the side of the proletariat. Within each class there are usually different strata and groups whose interests do not completely coincide. Thus, for example, in ancient society there was a struggle between the aristocratic and democratic groups of slaveholders; this struggle reflected contradictions between the interests of the different strata of the slaveholders. In capitalist society there are also contradictions between the interests of different strata of the bourgeoisie, for example, between the monopolistic and the nonmonopolistic bourgeoisie.

The development of capitalism leads to changes in the class structure of society that, whatever the reformers say, do not eliminate but only deepen class antagonisms. The most important of these changes are linked on the one hand with the process of the growth of monopoly capitalism and its development into state-monopoly capitalism and on the other hand with the development of the scientific and technological revolution. During the last hundred years in the advanced capitalist countries, the relative numbers of the bourgeoisie in the gainfully employed population have decreased: whereas in the mid-19th century the bourgeoisie was 8 percent of the gainfully employed population in Great Britain, in the 1960’s and 1970’s it has been 1–2 or 3–4 percent in the highly developed capitalist countries.

At the same time, the wealth of the bourgeoisie has grown enormously. Within the bourgeoisie, a monopolistic elite has formed and has concentrated economic and political power in its own hands. The interests of the monopolies have come to be at odds not only with the interests of the toiling masses but also with those of the small capitalists and even some of the middle entrepreneurs. Under conditions of state-monopoly capitalism, small private property owners, such as peasants and artisans, have been squeezed out and ruined at an accelerating rate and their relative numbers in the population have been reduced. At the same time, the relative number of wage earners has risen. By 1969, their proportion in the gainfully employed population reached 93.5 percent in Great Britain, 91.6 percent in the USA, 82.6 percent in the Federal Republic of Germany, 76.8 percent in France, and 62.6 percent in Japan. Within the general mass of persons earning wages, the most important position, in terms of both numbers and role in production, is occupied by the modern working class.

The development of capitalist production and especially the spread of the scientific and technological revolution lead to essential changes in the structure of the working class. The numerical proportions of different branches of the working class change, especially that of industrial to agricultural workers. In the USA in 1870 the ratio of the industrial proletariat to agricultural workers was 1:1, and in 1960 it was 16:1. In Great Britain in 1951 it was 14:1, becoming 19:1 in 1964; in France in 1954 it was 6:1, becoming 12:1 in 1965; in the Federal Republic of Germany in 1950 it was 7.4:1, becoming 38:1 in 1967.

In the advanced capitalist countries the relative importance of the service industries is rising. However, the redistribution of labor between the production and nonproduction spheres does not provide evidence of the shrinkage or the future “disappearance” of the proletariat, since the service industries are not outside the bounds of society’s class structure; rather, in them the division into classes is reproduced. The factory and plant proletariat constitutes the kernel of the working class; but the working class also includes the agricultural proletariat, as well as transportation workers and workers in trade, who participate in the completion of the process of production and the creation of surplus value or who create by means of their unpaid labor the conditions for its appropriation by the capitalists.

In modern conditions the working class is not simply all those people who are engaged in physical labor. The scientific and technological revolution is changing the production functions of the worker; it is eliminating a number of old occupations and creating new ones that require a higher level of qualifications. The overwhelming majority of workers are engaged primarily in physical labor, but the spread of the scientific and technological revolution is leading to a rise in the amount of intellectual labor in production, which also creates surplus value for the capitalists.

Scientific and technological progress and the development of education and culture have led to a great increase in the number of people engaged primarily in intellectual labor, that is, the intelligentsia and office employees. For example, in the USA their proportion of the total number of employed people increased from 31 percent in 1940 to 45 percent in 1966. The social composition of the intelligentsia is not homogeneous. Its top layer (for example, the managers) is merging with the ruling class. Some of the intelligentsia, those working in the liberal professions, are close in position to the middle strata of society. At the same time, an increasingly significant number of the intelligentsia and office employees are losing their former position as a privileged stratum in society; their position is approaching that of the working class. To a greater extent than before, office employees and engineering and technical toilers are coming not from society’s elite but from the ranks of workers, not only the petite bourgeoisie but the proletariat as well. The gap separating the wages of workers and the salaries of the masses of office employees is closing. The lower-level and often even the middle-level office employee is paid no better than a worker. Finally, a significant section of the engineering and technical personnel is losing its command role as the commissioned and noncommissioned officers of capital, insofar as automation and the mechanization of production themselves determine the compulsory rhythm of the production process.

Changes in the social structure of capitalism are creating the basis for a closer alliance between the working class and the broader strata of toilers in the city and the countryside. As the International Conference of Communist and Workers’ Parties observed in 1969, the convergence of the interests of the peasantry, the middle strata of the cities, and the intelligentsia with the interests of the working class helps to narrow the social base of the monopolies and raises the possibility of creating a broad alliance of all antimonopoly and anti-imperialist forces. The working class is the guiding force in this alliance; increasingly it becomes the center of attraction of all the working strata of the population.

In analyzing the historical role of each class, Marxism-Leninism starts with an analysis of its objective position in the system of social production and its conditions of life. This position determines its class interests, which, once recognized, are more or less precisely reflected in its ideology. The universal historical mission of the working class is determined by its position in the system of capitalist production; this mission entails the destruction of bourgeois society and the creation of a non-class communist society. For thousands of years the existence of classes was historically necessary. As Engels observed, this was because of the relatively low level of development of the productive forces; the development of society could be carried on only if the toiling masses were enslaved. Under such conditions, the privileged minority could occupy itself with state affairs, science, and the arts. Because of the large growth attained by big capitalist industry in the productivity of labor, the material preconditions arose for the abolition of classes. The existence of any exploiter class whatever not only became superfluous but turned into a direct hindrance to the further development of society.

The abolition of classes is possible only by means of the conquest of political power by the proletariat and a radical transformation of the economic structure. In order to liquidate the exploitative structure it is necessary to liquidate private ownership of the means of production and to replace it by public ownership. “The abolition of classes means placing all citizens on an equal footing with regard to the means of production belonging to society as a whole. It means giving all citizens equal opportunities of working on the publicly owned means of production, on the publicly owned land, at the publicly owned factories, and so forth” (V. I. Lenin, ibid., vol. 24, p. 363).

Classes cannot be abolished at once; they will continue to exist for a long time even after the overthrow of capitalist power. During the transition from capitalism to socialism in countries where there are a number of economic structures, there are three classes: the working class, connected chiefly with the socialist sector of the economy (a basic class); the toiling peasantry, the overwhelming majority of which is connected with the petty commodity production sector (a basic class); and the capitalist elements of the city and countryside, connected with the private capitalist sector of the economy (a nonbasic, secondary class). After the victory of socialist economic forms, all exploiter classes are abolished and the class structure of society is altered in a radical way. However, experience shows that even at the socialist stage certain class distinctions are preserved between the working class and the peasantry. These distinctions are connected with the existence of two forms of socialist property: statenational and cooperative-kolkhoz. This is due to the difference in the levels of socialization of production and development of productive forces in industry and in agriculture. The essential distinctions between city and countryside and between intellectual and physical labor have not been overcome, and they are reflected in the social structure of society, which consists of the working class, the peasants in cooperatives, office employees, and the intelligentsia.

Under the conditions of advanced socialism, the working class is the largest class in society. The percentage of workers in the population of the USSR rose from 14.6 percent in 1913 to 33.5 percent in 1939 and 59.8 percent in 1972. The working class plays the leading role in society, primarily because it works at enterprises that are the property of the whole nation and that represent the highest form of socialist economy. Second, the working class constitutes the bulk of those employed in industry, which is the guiding force of the whole national economy. Third, the working class possesses the richest revolutionary experience, it has been toughened the most, and it is the best organized. The guiding role of the working class grows along with its number and its general level of culture, education, and political activity. The percentage of workers who have received a secondary and higher education increased in the USSR from 8.4 percent in 1939 to 39.6 percent in 1959 and 64 percent in 1972.

Unlike the working class, the kolkhoz peasantry has declined in numbers: from 47.2 percent in 1939 to 19.3 percent in 1972. However, under socialism this is not the result of the proletarianization and ruin of the peasantry. On the contrary, the prosperity of the peasantry is growing. Mechanization of agriculture and development in the technological equipment per unit of labor are creating surpluses in the labor force in the countryside and changing the character of the peasant’s labor, making it more productive and closer to the worker’s labor. The number of kolkhoz peasants who had received higher or secondary education constituted only 1.8 percent in 1939; in 1959 it was 22.6 percent, and in 1972, 44 percent. The common socialist foundations on which the working class and the peasantry base their existence and the increasing level of socialization of labor in the countryside make inevitable the convergence of these classes.

Socialism hastens the increase in the number of those engaged in intellectual labor and lays the basis for the convergence of workers living by physical labor and those living by intellectual labor. From 1926 to 1971 the number of workers engaged primarily in intellectual labor increased by more than 10 times in the USSR. The proportion of office employees in the population of the USSR grew from 2.4 percent in 1913 to 16.7 percent in 1939 and 20.9 percent in 1972. Under socialism the intelligentsia has become truly popular, in the sense that to a greater extent than ever before, it is drawing new members from the milieu of workers, peasants, and other kinds of toilers; it gives its creative energy to the cause of the people.

The existence of class and social distinctions under socialism necessitates a precise political evaluation of both the interests of the whole nation and the interests of the classes and social groups it comprises. The very nature of socialism preconditions the gradual merger of all these groups and the obliteration of all distinctions between them. This process unfolds mainly as a result of the economic and cultural rise of the countryside and the conversion of agricultural labor into a kind of industrial labor. Growing socialization of labor in the kolkhozes and the development of economic links between the kolkhozes and the state sector are leading to the merging of kolkhoz property with the general national property. At the same time, the process of bringing physical and intellectual labor together is proceeding on the basis of the combination of the scientific-technological revolution with the advantages of socialism. Thus, in the process of building a highly developed socialist society and of its development into communism, society is becoming increasingly homogeneous socially. This objective process, however, does not unfold spontaneously; to a large extent it depends on the policy of the party, which directs the activity of all social groups into one common channel.

The successes in resolving the historical task of abolishing exploiter classes have refuted in practice the assertions of bourgeois ideologists about the “permanence” of private property and the “natural character” of the division of society into rulers and subjects. Bourgeois theories of class usually have an antihistorical approach. Thus, for example, the proponents of biological theories assert that at the root of society’s division into classes lie differences in the biological value of people stemming from differences in origin and race. The majority of bourgeois theories deny the material foundations of society’s division into classes. Representatives of the psychological theory define classes as groups of people with identical psychic makeups and perceptions of the outside world or with similar emotions. Bourgeois sociological theories try either to conceal the distinctions between classes or to declare them natural and permanent.

Many bourgeois sociologists state that the proletariat has “disappeared,” that it has dissolved into the “middle class.” However, in reality no “middle class” exists; there are only large interstitial strata that do not form a single class. Their existence will in no way lead to a leveling of the positions of opposing classes. It is also fruitless to try to substitute for a division of society into opposing classes a division into many strata differing from one another by type of occupation, income, place of residence, and other such factors. Of course, Marxism-Leninism does not deny the existence in society of other social strata and groups alongside the classes. However, the place and role of these other groupings can be understood only if one identifies the place they occupy in the class structure and in the struggle between classes. Class contradictions cannot be covered up by professional, cultural, or other distinctions. These contradictions disappear only as a result of a radical change in the relations of production, the revolutionary overthrow of the mainstays of capitalist society, and the creation of a new, socialist society.


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Marx, K. “Vvedenie. (Iz ekonomicheskikh rukopisei 1857–1858 godov).” Ibid., vol. 12.
Marx, K. “Vosemnadtsatoe briumera Lui Bonaparta.” Ibid., vol. 8.
Marx, K. Kapital, vols. 1–3. Ibid., vols. 23–25.
Marx, K. Teorii pribavochnoi stoimosti (vol. 4 of Kapital). Ibid., vol. 26 (parts 1–3).
Engels, F. Anti-Dühring. Ibid., vol. 20.
Engels, F. “Luidvig Feierbakh i konets klassicheskoi nemetskoi filosofii.” Ibid., vol. 21, ch. 4.
Engels, F. “Proiskhozhdenie sem’i, chastnoi sobstvennosti i gosudarstva.” Ibid.
Engels, F. “Obshchestvennye klassy—neobkhodimye i izlishnie.” Ibid., vol. 19.
Lenin, V. I. “Chto takoe ‘druz’ia naroda’ i kak oni voiuiut protiv sotsialdemokratov.” Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 1.
Lenin, V. I. “Ekonomicheskoe soderzhanie narodnichestva i kritika ego v knige g. Struve.” Ibid., vol. 1.
Lenin, V. I. “Eshche odno unichtozhenie sotsializma.” Ibid., vol. 25.
Lenin, V. I. “Karl Marks.” Ibid., vol. 26.
Lenin, V. I. Gosudarstvo i revoliutsiia. Ibid., vol. 33.
Lenin, V. I. “Velikii pochin.” Ibid., vol. 39.
Lenin, V. I. “Ekonomika i politika v epokhu diktatury proletariata.” Ibid.
Lenin, V. I. Detskaia bolezn’ ‘levizny’ v kommunizme. Ibid., vol. 41.
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Grant, E. Sotsializm i srednie klassy. Moscow, 1960. (Translated from English.)
Varga, E. Kapitalizm dvadtsatogo veka. Moscow, 1961.
Shneerson, A. I. Gorodskie srednie sloi pri kapitalizme. Moscow, 1961.
Aaronovich, S. Praviashchii klass (v Anglii). [Moscow] 1962. (Translated from English.)
Glezerman, G. E. Istoricheskii materializm i razvitie sotsialisticheskogo obshchestva, 2nd ed., ch. 4. Moscow, 1973.
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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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