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“Marxian Class Analysis, Theory and Practice” online seminar by Richard D. Wolff, a review

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Production (of goods and services) is a material necessity of every human society. Production of surplus is another material necessity if a society as a whole is to sustain itself, since not everyone is a producer. Organization of production in terms of appropriation and distribution of the finished product, including the surplus, is one of the key features that distinguishes human societies one from another.

These are fairly straightforward propositions and they form the basis of Marx’s economic and sociological analyses. It’s not on account of this, however, that Marx’s analysis suffers from disrepute but from his application of said premises. I’m speaking here of the surplus theory of value and his class analysis respectively. Why so? Because the first hinges on the notion of exploitation as the chief means of securing and disposing of the surplus. And the second – well, it suggests the idea of class struggle.

Both notions are unpalatable to the common sensibility we’ve come to associate with a genteel and enlightened society, especially one that bills itself a liberal democracy. The first on strictly moral grounds, and the usual denial takes the form of talk in terms of profit, or return on investment, both morally neutral turns of phrase, we’ve been made to believe. The second is simply antithetical to the very principles on which any liberal democracy is presumed to be founded, principles which espouse individual equality under the law, (which, in my mind, translates to “equal moral worthiness of persons”), liberty, and natural rights.

It stands to reason, therefore, that anyone who’s been steeped in this ideology should find both notions abhorrent and against the grain. Indeed, the notion of exploitation is usually explained away by reference to capital investment and ultimately, the idea of economic freedom. Likewise with the idea of class struggle. Since we’re supposed to be equal, the very idea seems preposterous. This is why a liberal democracy and the capitalist system of production are such happy bedfellows and tend to reinforce one another: since the former has the desirable effect of making us feel good about ourselves, the idea of exploitation is unthinkable. This is also why Marx’s socioeconomic analysis has all the markings of a repressed kind of discourse, no less repressed, it’s arguable, than the kind of discourse hinted at by Freud when he introduced the concept of the unconscious. Indeed, even the most progressive forces of the left shy away from Marxian discourse. Witness Paul Krugman, for instance, or any other Nobel Prize Laureate in economics: rarely, if ever, is their work couched in anything even approximating Marxian terms.

It should be noted that Marx’s isn’t the only definition of class and class structure. The theories of class based on property or political power are much older than Marx’s, and they still exercise powerful influence on everyday thought. The same goes for the theory of class based on consciousness: you are who you think you are, regardless of how they peg you. Marx’s contribution, however, is invaluable to our understanding of class structure and it forms an all-important adjunct to the older conceptions.

The French Revolution provided the impetus. Despite radical redistribution of political power and property, not to mention the most radical change in consciousness, the noble slogan which prompted this epochal event, “Liberté, égalité, fraternité,” failed to materialize. Marx traced the abject failure to not going the extra step: restructuring the workplace so that the workers would have total control over the means of production and the disposition of the finished product, including the surplus, in short, the communal type of organization. The same criticism could be launched with respect to the Russian Revolution of 1917.

The following table offers a fair, albeit schematic representation of Marx’s analysis of human societies in terms of organization of production:











of producers control

disposition of product,

including the surplus)

Ancient Yes Self Employed

Held in

Trust or

In Common



Joint Ventures


(Producers have no

say in the matter)

Slavery Yes

Sex workers

Professional athletes

Feudal No

Traditional household



Capitalist Yes Wage/salaried workers


Note that the status of property is not a determinant as to whether the economic system in place is an exploitative one. Feudal class structure, for one, as defined by organization of production, was exploitative; yet landed property was being assigned or held in common. Conversely, the “ancient” class structure, as exemplified by, say, self-employed persons or the artisans of old – think of the cottage industry in pre-industrial England – was non-exploitative in the Marxian sense; yet the private property system remained intact. Consequently, there is no necessary entailment in either direction. Admittedly, the matter of private property is somewhat murky under the communal mode of organization. Is the property Ki>private when it’s held in trust or in common? Can we even speak of property in the latter instance? Such questions are not easily answerable but they needn’t detain us here. Suffice to say that on Marx’s analysis of class structure in terms of organization of production and exploitation, the status of property is not a decisive factor.

Also note that each of these organizational forms, along with the corresponding class structure, may co-exist within any given society (although some forms are more dominant than others). Ours is a perfect example. Though the vast majority of the populace stands in the employer-employee relationship to one another and therefore, in Marxian terms, in a relationship marked by exploitation, this arrangement by no means preempts the field. Many Americans are self-employed and proud of it: there’s nothing like being your own boss and that sentiment, understandably, is shared by most everyone. Some are virtual slaves and great many others, as members of household, re-enact what amounts to a feudal type of relationship and class structure. Indeed, even the communal forms abound. Apart from the most obvious examples by way of cooperatives, partnerships and what have you, perhaps the most telling are networks, software engineers and Silicon Valley techies quitting their regular jobs and getting together, usually in somebody’s garage or Starbucks, to form joint ventures. The underlying idea is innovation since the corporate environment is stifling, and the term in use is “innovative entrepreneurship.” Little do they know, the good Republicans they are, that what they’re engaging in, the class structure they’re re-enacting day in and day out, is a communal class structure straight out of Marx’s playbook.

Lastly, one and the same person may well partake in multiple class relationships in the course of their life. A gang member, for instance, may be gainfully employed while the bulk of their time and related activities places him or her within a feudal class structure. Likewise with a respectable software engineer – Neo from Matrix comes to mind – who, in his spare time, runs a profitable business as a computer hacker. A good and unsuspecting hubby, while exploited in the workplace, could well be exploiting his dutiful wife. The same wife, if also employed to make ends meet, could well be experiencing a double whammy, both at home and in the workplace.

The last-mentioned scenario, by the way, offers as good an explanation as any as to why so many American households are turning single-parent households. It’s not “moral crisis” as the religious Right tries to insinuate but the women having had their fill and saying “No.” Yet the Left, for its unfamiliarity with, or natural resistance to, Marx’s class-analytics, is at a loss to counter this little tidbit of conventional wisdom with a hypothesis of its own.

So much for setup, and it’s more than ably argued in Richard D. Wolff’s first of the five-part online seminar, “Marxian Class Analysis, Theory and Practice.” I won’t bother you with the rest, which deals mostly with applications, except for two salient points. The first offers an insightful analysis of the conditions in the wake of the Russian Revolution of 1917. Our (mis)understanding of those conditions, the situation on the ground, is so skewed in fact that there can only one plausible explanation: the Soviet experiment, perceived by the Western powers as imminent threat, was vilified from the very start (which suggest that apart from repression, vilification is perhaps the most efficacious line of attack against unpalatable views). If there is a moral to the story, it is that socialism or communism, if either of those terms be understood to mean statism, which is to say, state control of industry and commerce, have nothing to do with Marx’s idea of organization of production along the communal lines. Unfortunately, the architects of the Russian Revolution hadn’t a clue. The second is rather straightforward and it touches upon the American labor movement and the failure of the Left. In focusing on improving working conditions, including the rate of pay, the condition of exploitation remained unaddressed.

This is no revolutionary tract. I’d have no idea how to implement the taking over the abandoned factories or the means of production, nor do I know whether such a project is even possible. The Argentine experiment provides some basis for hope, but then again, we’re talking here about different mentality, culture and history of political and economic institutions. Suffice to say, however, Marx’s theory of class structure in terms of exploitation as the chief determinant of class relationships offers a unique perspective to say the least. Professor Wolff does great public service to be offering this seminar online, and I can only urge you to take advantage of it.

It’s seven hours long and then some, but every minute of it, I assure you, is well worth it. Even if you don’t become convinced in the end, you will have gained an invaluable tool to help you understand present-day events in an entirely new way, including our economic crisis.

Happy viewing!

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About Roger Nowosielski

  • Doug Hunter

    Family is exploitation? Professional athletes are slaves? It’s enough to make one vomit in one’s mouth. It’d be humorous if not for the fact that this divisive and hateful ideology has resulted in the enslavement of hundreds of millions, fostered the rise of numerous brutal dictators, and sparked the greatest genocides the world has ever seen.

    You duly note that examples of Marx’s non-exploitative “good” classes can be found in the ole US of A. A salient point. As I’ve stated on many occasions capitalism has nothing to fear from these alternative systems in a free society whereas Marxist alternatives must create a rigid police structure to keep capitalism at bay. That’s very telling to me and a macrocosm of the types of debates we see here. Marxists concern themselves with the destruction of capitalism, the revolution, and the overcoming of people such as myself. Me, I could care less what any of you do or believe so long as you don’t try and thrust it upon me, likewise your ideology is a critique of early stage capitalism and concerns itself with the destruction of the same while capitalism does not need your destruction it just needs the equal right to coexist. Anyways, Marxism sounds fine in theory, it makes great debate for the ignorant and indoctrinated alike, but it destroys everything it touches from within.

    ** As for your nugget regarding marriage, educated women are marrying and staying married at historically high rates. The poor are not likely as the provider role of the husband has been supplanted by government welfare (which also serves as a penalty as getting married may disqualify you for benefits) Hmmm, marriage and responsibly raising children with two loving adults is “exploitation”, whereas living on government benefits, food stamps, welfare, and section 8 for your fatherless kids and forcing the rest of society into indentured servitude to support your poor choices is what? Empowerment maybe? Gotta listen to the lecture I suppose.

  • Come on, Doug, no need to get excited. I haven’t argued for statism, and Marx’s communal mode of organization doesn’t either. It would be like substituting one master for another. Besides, Marx’s idea of exploitation, though one may object to it, is not entirely off the wall. Having control over what one produces, come to think of it, is not such an unreasonable idea. And if you push it to its logical limits, it it ought to square with libertarian ideology.

    In short, you seem to read into the Marxist agenda what’s clearly not there – ghost and goblins and all kinds of horrors.

  • I can’t actually read this tonight, Roger. But I am looking forward to it!

    Also, as an aside, Glenn Greenwald’s take on Wikileaks is the best.

  • That’s the first one I came across, Cindy. Thanks for the reference.

    Indeed, what Assange is doing is work of first importance – degrading governments, all governments, and along with it, the institution of the State. Only good can come from it. Overthrowing the capitalist system, at this point of my thinking, I deem as secondary, because it both feeds and is supported by the State. Destroy the State and you’ll have killed two birds with one stone.

    I just did the Wolff review to get it out of the way, as a preamble to “In Defense of Anarchism, Part II.”

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Doug –

    Anyways, Marxism sounds fine in theory, it makes great debate for the ignorant and indoctrinated alike, but it destroys everything it touches from within.

    The exact same thing can be said for Reaganomics/’Trickle-down economics’.

  • Anarcissie

    I read the review, but I really can’t deal with talking-head videos. I like print….

    If anyone can locate a point where Wolff defines ‘working class’ (a subject of one of our previous discussions) or ‘value’, especially as in ‘surplus labor value’, I’d do my best to find it and take it in. In the Marx I have read, value seems to be given a sort of objectivity and ‘hardness’, so to speak, which I don’t think it possesses. This leads to the notion of the capitalist class piling up value, whereas in fact value constantly melts away and has to be replaced, in fact a good thing from the point of view of the active, aggressive capitalist.

    I wonder also if Wolff distinguishes between what I call subsistence, consumer, and finance capitalism (in which values are different).

  • Same here, Anarcissie, except that the google-books excerpts from New Departures in Marxian Theory, on the basis of which text Wolff’s seminar on class-analytics is presumably based, are singularly unhelpful. Wolff’s own website (as per link in my article), by the way, offers a compendium of written material which, one would hope, addresses the very questions your raise. Perhaps Mark could be of help here by directing us to a written source. I, too, find Wolff’s lectures less than satisfying for being too schematic (although there is value to this approach as well). For example, the manner of expropriation of the means of production by the working class (however he defines it) receives little or no attention.

    I do like your conception of value in dynamic, as opposed to static, terms. Got to think about it.

    And BTW, I was trying not to be presumptive when I addressed you on Truthdig. Many people shy away from providing their email address on a public site. I hope you understand.

  • The following” is a fairly comprehensive account of Greenwald’s take on WikiLeaks, along with a long laundry list of the diverse “state secrets” WikiLeaks brought to light.

  • Hot off the press, Roger. He will post on it probably every day. He has stated he is devoting himself to this cause.

  • Mark

    While the general confusion might be over ‘meanings’, necessary definitions won’t be found in Marxist analyses of the dynamics of surplus value transformation (the ‘hardening’ problem) or social reproduction (a significant part of the ‘melting away’ problem). And where’s the usefulness in pinning down The Audience through some class analysis.

    From my perspective, Mose Allison pointed out the level of misunderstanding that ‘agitprop’ needs must address pretty well way back when with this carol. Things haven’t changed much since then.

    I blame the dialectic stalled as it is on stupid.

    Raise a glass to tomorrow’s Diggers and Merry Christmas.

  • It would appear then that identifying The Audience is of no particular interest or usefulness when discussing the merits of Marx’s class-analytics. The value, rather, seems to be more directly related to consciousness-raising in general, regardless of where one fits along the traditional or Marxian definition of class. The tenor of our times, no doubt, which points to the glaring deficiencies of Marx’s theory (because the original intent, I take it, was to direct the exploitation message to working class first and foremost, in short, the industrial workers, the proletariat). But as I said, modern-day conditions render Marx’s theorizing less than universal both in scope and applications.

    Have you changed your mind, in that case, regarding the so-called “fluff,” the merely disenchanted and the downtrodden, in short, “the dregs of society”? One way or another, the ultimate survival of individual communities, once disengagement from the totalizing political and economic institutions can even be considered as a viable alternatives, has got to depend on certain skills, both agricultural and industrial. Agriculture is a must because it’s about food production. Industry less so, because the use of industrial products can easily be curtailed if need be. Anyway, you do speak of the Diggers if only in passing, so I detect a strain, if not indecision, in your last comment. Is there a resolution in sight, or are we dealing perhaps with two different facets of the same problem?

    As to the dynamic versus static of surplus value, I’m still at a loss. I’ll try to google then subject to get a better feel.

    Merry X-mas, and I do hope you include me among tomorrow’s Diggers. I’d be honored. In any case, in anticipation of a positive response, I’ll raise the glass to you too.

  • as a viable alternative …

  • Anarcissie

    In reflection of the Mose Allison song, I’ll reveal a poem I wrote on a similar theme long ago.

    I heard the angels singing
    ‘Peace on Earth, good will to men
    when consistent with
    Free-World security.’
    They were
    Responsible angels.

    For some reason it hasn’t been set to music. It may not be my best effort.

    I’ve been interested in the definition, detection and location of such things as surplus labor value and the working class both as an intellectual exercise and an aid to attempts to change the world or at least subvert a few things here and there. However, I agree we may not be up to the task, considering the past geniuses whose bones whiten in the deserts of theory.

  • Anarcissie, you’re being unduly pessimistic here. Are you going through your “Tower-of-Babel” moment?

    A number of correctives so at to lighten perhaps your less than festive mood:

    1) Slavery, feudalism, capitalism – none of these had come about by any express design; though they may have been anticipated to an extent, they’ve evolved. Furthermore, they’re always unintended consequences, which serve as ever-fertile ground for continuous evolution of the social. Consequently, your implicit conception of history leaves a lot to be desired if you’re looking to “theory” as the be all and end all of social change. What’s needed instead is as accurate an analysis of the conditions on the ground as humanly possible – conditions which are always in the state of flux – along with a projection, or vision if you like, so as to enable us to act and think intelligently. That’s the value of utopian literature.

    Aristotle’s “movement” from the actual to the potential comes to mind [and although the original application, I believe, was restricted to individual progress(ion), extending the terms of the analysis to include the social is a natural move]. Likewise with notions of telos and eschatology, secular and theological versions, respectively, of what is essentially the same idea. All presuppose evolution as the underlying process of individual and social change and can be argued on both empirical and metaphysical grounds (although ultimately, I don’t think one can altogether escape metaphysics since it’s embedded in the concept of telos).

    2) On a side note, the evolving of individual consciousness runs parallel to the evolving of societies (because it’s contextually defined by the former. Even the greatest minds of their time couldn’t get passed their blind spots; the sensibilities of the modern common man surpass those of the ancients not because of any greater intellect but only because the society has progressed.

    For example, anarchistic literature and thought, as we understand them today, are relatively speaking new. And yet, the kind of work that Assange and WikiLeaks are doing was unimaginable only years ago. As a result, the very notion of statehood is being undermined on a massive scale and the first cracks are beginning to show. The present political and economic setup is clearly undergoing a radical change, and it had but started. All that’s needed is for the movement to acquire sufficient critical mass for the systemic changes to become evident and a living reality. As Eco pointed out, the storming of the Bastille was but an icing on the cake, a culmination of social unrest that’s been brewing for years. We’re undergoing some such process, it’s only a matter of time.

    May these thoughts serve to lift up your unusually gloomy mood.

  • Anarcissie

    I’m not in a bad mood, although I am sort of snowed in. I have survived Christmas — in fact, I slipped by most of it pretty smoothly this year.

    As for the observation of facts versus the spinning of theory, I’ll remind you that, as Uncle Albert said, ‘It is the theory that tells us what we can observe.’

  • I’m a Wittgensteinian, Anarcissie, so I don’t need uncle Albert’s reminders. Besides, my observations had more to do with the dynamics of the historical process and the particular constrains that are thereby place on theorizing.