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Class in Itself and Class Against Capital: Karl Marx

and His Classifiers



of Toronto

It has become almost a truism in Marxian scholarship that Marx

distinguished a class in itself1 from a class for itself, * Whether
scholars defend Marxs use of this distinction1 or criticize him for
making use of a problematic distinction,2 a consensus exists that Marx
made such a distinction.3 My position is that, if Marx had distinguished
classes in themselves from classes for themselves, he would be open to
the charges of economic reductionism that Nicos Foulantzas and Adam
Przeworski find to be implicit in the distinction. However, despite the
unanimity of his commentators, Marx never referred to classes in
themselves or distinguished a class in itself from a class for itself,
Of the writers who attribute class in itself and class for itself,"
Dos Santos, Przeworski, Eisenstein and Zeitlin provide no textual
evidence to support their attribution,4 Robert Tucker and Poulantzas
cite a passage in The Poverty of Philosophy which we shall shortly
analyze.5 Kolakowski cites a passage in The Eighteenth Brumaire of
Louis Bonaparte which also will be examined to assess whether it will
I T. Dos Santos, The Concept of Social Classes, Science and Society 34 (1970), 181;
Hal Draper, Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution: The Politics of Social Classes (New
York: Monthly Review Press, 1978), 40-41, 349; G. A. Cohen, Karl Marx's Theory of
History: A Defence (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980), 73-76,
2 Nicos Poulantzas, Political Power and Social Classes (London: New Left Books,
1973), 74-76, and Adam Przeworski, Proletariat into a Class: The Process of Class
Formation from Karl Kautskys The Class Struggle to Recent Controversies,*1
Politics and Society 7 (1977), 343, 367.
3 Irving M. Zeitlin, Marxism. A Re-Examination (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold,
1967), 72, 103; Leszek Kolakowski, Main Currents of Marxism, Vol. 1 (Oxford:
Clarendon Press, 1978), 356; Robert C. Tucker, The Marx-Engets Reader (New York:
Norton, 1978), 218; Z. Eisenstein, Women as a Sexual Class, paperdeliveredatthe
March I9S3 Marx Centenary Conference, University of Winnipeg.
4 See supra, footnotes 1, 2 and 3.
5 See supra, footnotes 2 and 3.
Canadian JournaJ of Political Science / Revue ranadienne de
fSeplemtwri'Kcptembre 1983). Printed in Canada I Tmprimt au Canada






support the attribution.0 Draper and Cohen cite both passages as sources
for the distinction but, whereas Draper asserts that "this distinction is
made mainly in/' Cohen more judiciously asserts that "the distinction is
taken from" The Eighteenth Brumaire and The Poverty of Philosophy 7
Before looking at the passages cited as the textual source of the
distinction between a class in itself and a class for itself, let us clarify
what the commentators mean by the distinction, Cohen provides a
forceful defence of the distinction, thinking it essential to establish a
strictly structural definition of class (in itself) distinct from any political
or cultural expression of class identity (for itself). Cohen asserts that "a
person's class is established by nothing but his objective place in the
network of ownership relations, however difficult it may be to identify
such places neatly. His consciousness, culture, and politics do not enter
the definition of his class position/'* Indeed, "not even his behavior is
an essentia] part of a person's class identity. Przeworski, who
deprecates the distinction, accepts Cohen's view that the distinction
entails an opposition between the economic as objective reality and the
political and cultural as subjective expressions of the underlying
economic reality. Przeworski writes:
The difficulties encountered by Marxist theory in analysing the class structure of
concrete capitalist societies had already appeared at the time of the formation of
the socialist movement. Their roots are to be found in the formulation by Marx of
the problematic in which the processes of class formation are seen as a necessary
transition from a "class in itself to a "class for itself/* a formulation in which
economic relations have the status of objective conditions and all other relations
constitute realms of subjective actions. &

Thus the class in itself/for itself distinction presupposes that classes

are constituted in the socioeconomic realm, prior to political or cultural
engagements, and that political struggle and forms of culture and
consciousness are not constitutive or definitive of class structure but
rather are symptoms, expressions, perhaps even necessary effects, of
the socioeconomic class structure, or relations of production.
Let us now examine the passages cited to support the attribution to
Marx of the class in itself/for itself distinction. In The Eighteenth
Brumaire , Marx writes of the mid-nineteenth century French peasantry:
In so far as millions of families live under economic conditions of existence that
separate their mode of life, their interests and their culture from those of the
other classes, and put them in hostile opposition to the latter, they form a class,
In so far as there is merely a local interconnection among these small-holding
6 See supra, footnote 3,
7 Draper, Karl Marx's Theory
History , 76,

of Revolution*

8 Ibid., 73. Emphasis in the original.

9 FTzeworski, "Proletariat into a Class/* 343,

41; Cohen, Karl Marx's Theory


Abstract. This note argues that, widespread opinion to the contrary, Marx did not make a
distinction between a class in itself and a class for itself but between a class against capital
and a class for itself, Marx's formulation of a 'class against capital exhibits a political
dimension lacking in a class in itself; political institutions and arrangements are
not simply the instrument or the expression of a pre-existing class structure but rather
condition or shape the class structure. The implications of the erroneous attribution to the
theoretical understanding of class formation as well as practical politics are explored,

Malgne les opinions largement repandues Marx n'a pas fait de distinction entre
une classe en soi et une classe pour soi, mais plutdt il a fait une difference entre une classe
contre le capital et une classe pour soi. La formulation marxienne dune * classe contre le
capital *a une dimension politique qui ne se retrouve pas dans une classe en soi ; les
institutions et compromis politique s ne sont pas sirnplement T instrument ou Texpression
d'une structure de classes pre-existente, mais plutdt ils faconnent ou conditionnent la
structure de classes. Dans eet article I'auteur evalue les consequences de la mauvaise
interpretation decet aspect du marxisme sur la comprehension theorique de la formation
des classes ainsi que sur la pratique politique,

peasants, and the identity of their interests begets no community, no national

bond and no political organisation among them, they do not form a class.10

Cohen uses this passage in support of his structural definition of

class (distinct, as above noted, from any conscious, cultural, political or
even behavioural expression of class), and in opposition to E. R
Thompson, who, like Przeworski and Poulantzas, understands class as
constituted by a form of conflictive behaviour generated primarily but
not exclusively by common experiences in the production process.
Cohen asserts: If Thompson were right, the French peasantry of The
Eighteenth Brumaire could not be considered a class/11 Clearly, Cohen
has not provided a decisive argument against the nonstructural
definition of class on the basis of the text itself. For Marx says that in one
sense, the peasants form a class* and in another sense they do not
form a class, This apparent contradiction demands linguistic
clarification or a distinction in the sense of class in which peasants form
one from that in which they do not. To avoid this apparent contradiction ,
Cohen and others introduce the distinction between a class in itself and a
class for itself; the French peasants then embody a class in itself but not
for itself,
The other passage Cohen and Draper use for the distinction
between a class in itself and a class for itself derives from Marxs
account of the effects of large-scale industry. Transforming the
relatively isolated and self-sufficient character of peasant production,
capitalist industrialization introduces a co-operative or socialized
working environment, facilitating the class formation of workers. In The
Poverty of Philosophy , Marx writes: Economic conditions had first
transformed the mass of the people of the country into workers. The
combination of capital has created for this mass a common situation,
10 Kart Marx and Friedrich Engels, Collected Works (New York: International
Publishers, 1976), Vol, II. 187.
II Cohen, Karl Marx's Theory of History , 76.



common interests. This mass is thus already a class as against capital,

but not yet for itself. In the struggle
this mass becomes united, and
constitutes itself as a class for itself. The interests it defends become
class interests. But the struggle of class against class is a political


struggle. 12

Tucker includes this passage in The Marx-Engeh Reader and

comments: "Note the Hegelian terminology in Marx's depiction of the
proletariat becoming ... a class not only in itself but also 'for itself. 13
Indeed Tucker does not put the "in itself1 in quotation marks as he does
the "for itself' because the antithesis here is between a class against
capital and a class for itself, (The original French reads, une classe
vis-a-vis du capital, mais pas encore pour elle-meme,'1 which Bernstein
and Kautsky translated as "eine Klasse gegeniiber dem Kapital, aber
noch nicht fur sich selbst."14 Combined in opposition to their
employers, industrial workers form a class against capital in a manner
that nonunionized peasants do not. Peasants, dependent upon such
vagaries of nature and market as soil fertility, climate, irrigation and
harvest times, lack the commonality of situation of factory workers.
Peasants of one region may experience different conditions of
production than in another, may lack communication with one another
and may share interests with the landlords and agricultural capitalists of
their locality which they do not with peasants of another region. Unlike
propertyless workers, small- holding peasant proprietors do not
constitute * 'a class as against capital." While they may have grievances
against the system of taxation, against the interest or rent they may pay,
peasants, Marx thought, are not opposed to capitalism itself, to the
private property and market system. Peasants are more of a mass than a
class, people with amorphous grievances against financiers, rentiers and
imposters (taxmen) rather than a specific group with articulated
interests "against capital." Populists may be militant, particularly when
determined to free themselves of pre-capitalist fetters to independent
proprietorship or when their small-holding is threatened by the capitalist
market, but populist struggles are not class conflict, unless populists
participate in struggles for dominion between potentially hegemonic
Whereas Marx's concept of a class against capital does not allow
the analytic separation of class from class conflict, the concept of a class
in itself does. Whereas organized opposition against a united enemy
constitutes the essence of class in Marxs writing, not even behaviour
antagonistic to other classes is essential to Cohens class in itself.
Perhaps Cohen's concept is a useful tool to analyze those societies
without manifest class conflict or to describe economic groups, such as
12 Marx and Engels, Collected Works , VQI. 6+ 211.
13 Tucker, The Marx-Engets Reader, 218.
L4 Karl Marx, Oeuvres, Economic, 1 (Paris; GaHimand, 1963), 135; Karl Marx and
Friedrich Engels, Werke, Bd. 4 (Berlin: Dietz Veriag, 1974), 181.

Class in

Itself and Class Against Capital


the nineteenth century French peasantry which seemingly do and do not

form a class,
Or could we simply say that there are social formations in which
economic classes do not constitute political classes, that the peasantry
of The Eighteenth Brumaire is an economic but not a political class?
Indeed, despite his tendency to abstract the political content from

Marx's class analysis, Cohen recognizes that Marx often meant by class
a contender for political power. Cohen cites a few of Marx's statements
such as . . .the proletariat can act as a class only by constituting itself as
a political party11 and every moment in which the working class comes
oat as a class against the ruling classes and attempts to force them by
pressure from without is apolitical movement?'15 Cohen points out that
what fails to act or come out as a class is nothing other than the working
class. Thus, like the peasantry, the industrial workers who fail to be a
class for itself are merely a class in itself. However, The Communist
Manifesto states: The organisation of the proletarians into a class, and
consequently into a political party, is continually being upset again by
the competition between the workers themselves?'16 Do competing
workers constitute a class? In The German Ideology, Marx and Engels
write: The separate individuals form a class only insofar as they have to
carry on a common battle against another class; otherwise they are on
hostile terms with each other as competitors?'17 This formulation
suggests that individual proletarians only constitute a proletariat or a
working class on condition that they are organized in trade unions and
political parties. Thus Marx's texts do not unambiguously support
Cohens structural definition of class or his view that the structure of
capitalist industry forms the working class (as distinct from Thompsons
and Przeworskis view that workers actively contribute to the making of
the working class). Cohens representation of historical materialism
then is an attempted clarification rather than a faithful reproduction of
Marxs views on class,
The analytic distinction of a class in itself and a class for itself allows
Cohen to distinguish one's class position from any political or cultural
expression of ones class identity. This distinction does not seem to
parallel Marxs distinction in The Eighteenth Brumaire regarding the
French peasant forming an economic class but not a political class. For
Marx says that the French peasants form a class insofar as millions of
families live under economic conditions of existence that separate their
mode of life, their interests and their culture from those of the other
classes, and put them in hostile opposition to the latter. That is,
Cohens class in itself excludes culture as a component of class whereas
Marx's presentation of the peasant class includes it. Moreover the
15 Cohen, Karl Marx's Theory of History, 76. Emphasis in the original.
16 Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Vol, 6, 493.
17 Ibid., Vol. 5, 77,



hostile opposition" to others integral to a class conforms more closely

to The Poverty of Philosophy's class against capital than to Cohens
class in itself*
However, other adherents to the class in itself/for itself dichotomy
do not exclude culture as an element of a class in Itself. For example,
Dos Santos does not exclude culture as a component of a class in itself to
the extent that the attitudes, habits of thought and behaviour, felt
interests and aspirations (which comprise what he calls class
psychology) are illusionary rather than realistic, ideological rather than
scientific. Dos Santos writes:
4 L

Insofar as this class psychology fails to express the reality of these relations in a
significant sector of the individuals that make up a class, these human aggregates
may be thought of as a class in itself.
But it will be a classfor itself in a social situation in which it becomes aware
of these relations in the form of a political ideology that clearly defines the real
conditions of its existence and the contradictions between those conditions and
its interests as a social class, and which proposes the means of overcoming this

Thus a class in itself is a class deficient in social awareness, an

aggregate composed of individuals who are unacquainted with, or
unreceptive to, Marxist science. Following Lenin and Lukacs we could
even say that class consciousness must be "imputed" to workers from
outside the working class by the Marxist intelligentsia*19 Working class
consciousness is thus distinct from the empirical psychology of workers*
No worker has ever thought or felt or will ever think or feel what Lukacs
describes as proletarian class consciousness. Nor is there the slightest
indication that Lukacs would find interesting the responses to the
empirical survey of workers attitudes that Marx sent to workmen**0 For
if we distinguish a class in itself from a class for itself, class psychology
from class consciousness, merely empirical investigation is irrelevant to
the larger issue of class consciousness*
While it is widely recognized that Marxist science is the
precondition for the level of awareness of a "class for itself," it is not as
readily acknowledged that a class in itself' only exists for those
initiated in Marxist analysis. The conception of a class against capital
suggests an empirical understanding of manifest opposition, struggle or
conflict as definitive of class whereas Cohens class in itself denotes a
definitive structure underlying experience and behaviour* Visible
struggles are appearances or phenomena to be explained by the
noumenal structure of class in itself But what a class is in itself, in its
IS Dos Santos, The Concept of Social Classes," 181. Emphasis in original.
19 Vr |, Lenin, Collected Works , VoL 5 (Moscow; Foreign Languages Publishing, 1961),
373, 384-87; Gyorgy Lukacs, History and Class Consciousness (London; Merlin,
1971), 51.
20 T. B. Bottom ore and Maxi mi lien RubeJ, Kart Marx: Selected Writings in Sociology
and Social Philosophy (London: Watts, 1956), 203-12.

Class in Itself and Class Against Capital


inner truth or abjective reality, is inaccessible for those who hold by the
outward appearance of class conflict, the acting out of a class identity in
opposition to other organized groups or classes* Once the class in itself
has been identified (with all the rigor and difficulty that Dos Santos and
Cohen acknowledge) one can then deduce the nature of the class for
itself or what the politics and consciousness of that class ought to be
(which lamentably will diverge from what the political culture of that
class in fact is)*
Further, does a class in itself remain unaltered in the course of its
political engagements, in its class alliances and class struggles? Is the
class structure simply to be viewed as the cause of political practices and
state institutions* and political parties merely the effect or the
expression of the balance of class forces? Are states and parties merely
the instruments of pre-existing classes or is the political realm a sphere
for the formation, deformation and reformation of classes? If political
engagements alter the class structure (a point that any political activist
would be hard pressed to deny) and are not merely the expression or
instruments of a pre-established class structure, the class in itself has
come out of itself. Przeworski, who sees classes as the effects of
struggles conditioned by a conjuncture of economic, political and
ideological factors, wishes to reject the formulation of class in itself and
for itself and replace it with a concept of a class in struggle. **21 This
formulation, Przeworski thinks, will emancipate classical Marxism from
economic determinism, opening Marxism up to a more pluralist
understanding of social development. All I would point out in opposition
to Przeworski is that Marx's formulation was a class against capital and a
class for itself and that Przeworski 's class in struggle is similar in
signification to Marx's class against capital*
The antithesis of the class against capital and the class for itself
presents less ambitious claims upon the social theorist than the
antithesis of the class in itself and the class for itself. However it is
perhaps questionable whether a class, without a sustained period of
social hegemony, could exist for itself, that is, articulate its own
understanding of the world, legitimate its interests and aspirations as
norms of conduct and forms of cultural expression, free of the ideology
of hitherto dominant classes. But then a class for itself is not
necessarily the pre-condition for a revolutionary seizure of power. If the
English gentry or the French bourgeoisie required the scientific realism
of Dos Santoss, Cohen's or Draper's class for itself," we would still be
awaiting the revolutions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries*
The capitalist class only existed "for itself that is, represented its
hegemony in its own terms independent of patriarchal relations,
authoritative rather than market forms of allocation, codes of honour,
hereditary status and other marks of pre-capitalist society a good

21 Przeworski, "Proletariat into a Class," 367+



many years after the revolutions in Britain and France , As a class against
the aristocracy but not yet for itselfstill dependent upon political
and cultural forms of the aristocracy the bourgeoisie, constantly
changing its character and composition, rose to social and political
dominance. By analogy, as a class against capital but not yet for
itself still dependent upon political and cultural forms of the
bourgeoisie the working class, constantly changing its character and
composition, organized and disorganized on sectoral, regional, ethnic
and sexual lines, will have to engage in prolonged struggle for social and
political dominance, For class consciousness is as much the effect as the
cause of class struggle.
The In itself/for itself dichotomy may well represent a serious
barrier to working class self-definition and to the formation of an
effective politics of labour* A class in itself is constituted by the
economic structure prior to political and cultural engagements rather
than constituting itself in partisan combination and combat* As distinct
from the self-definition of a class against capital, a class in itself is
defined by a vanguard, armed with the science to grasp objective
processes, which then define class consciousness on the basis of its
understanding of the objective (but never specified) interests of the
workers. The for itself is imputed to workers by intellectuals rather
than emerging in the course of the workers struggle against capital. The
misattribution to Marx of the dichotomy of class in itself/for itself
represents a Leninist constriction of Marxist politics and a doctrinal
limitation to empirical application of class analysis.