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Outlining a Marxist understanding of social class and contradictions under capitalism



Mario Candeias,

A textile factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh producting for the export market. Photo: IMAGO/Joerg Boethling

The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.

Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary re-constitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.
In the earlier epochs of history, we find almost everywhere a complicated arrangement of society into various orders, a manifold gradation of social rank. In ancient Rome we have patricians, knights, plebeians, slaves; in the Middle Ages, feudal lords, vassals, guild-masters, journeymen, apprentices, serfs; in almost all of these classes, again, subordinate gradations.
The modern bourgeois society that has sprouted from the ruins of feudal society has not done away with class antagonisms. It has but established new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle in place of the old ones.

(Marx and Engels, Communist Manifesto, MECW 6/482 et sqq. [4/424 et sq.])[1]

How to define “class”?[2] Which class? The working class, of course, or shall we say the class of the labourers — female and male — or rather of all those who have to bring their labour power to the market.

For Marx, the relations to capital and the means of production are fundamental. The doubly free wage labourer (Capital I, 272 [23/183]), unlike the serf, freely disposes of their labour power, which has become a commodity, which they can sell on the (labour) market. At the same time, however, they are also “free” of the means of production, i.e. forced to sell their labour power. This is first of all the objective commonality of all wage earners as a class.

Antagonistic Contradictions

It is in this way that labourers confront capital, that category which buys the commodity of labour power, which itself is a peculiar commodity that has the unique characteristic of producing more value than it costs. The value of labour power is determined by the costs necessary for its reproduction of food, housing, etc., depending on development, the cultural demands of life, and political-economic relations of force (Capital I, 274 [23/184 et sq.]). This maintenance includes not only the individual’s labour power, but also “that necessary to maintain his family” (518 [417]), and thus the production of the next generation of labour power (275 [186]).

Mario Candeias is the director of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Institute for Critical Social Analysis in Berlin.

This essay is based on a chapter of Klassentheorie: Vom Making und Remaking (Argument, 2021). Translated by Kolja Swingle.

The worker reproduces precisely this: the equivalent to the value of his labour power and a surplus beyond it, i.e. the surplus value. This surplus value is appropriated by the capitalist. An exchange of equivalents is made: the worker is paid for the value of his labour power, the capitalist receives in return the worker’s labour capacity and can exploit it in production.

In doing so, the capitalist tries to keep the value of labour power as low as possible and, in contrast, to exploit the labour capacity as fully as possible by intensifying work, i.e. heightening “the tension of labour-power, and a closer filling-up of the pores of the working day”, i.e. the “condensation of labour” (534 [432]) and/or an extension of working hours. This constitutes the antagonistic contradiction between capital and labour, “between the exploiter and the raw material of his exploitation” (449 [350]), between the bourgeoisie and the working class — a relationship of conflict based on opposing interests in society.[3]

Now, there are many contradictions in society, for example between the genders, between generations, or between groups who are native to a country and those who are immigrants to it. These conflicts can be fierce — but they are not necessarily antagonistic in the sense that one side of the contradiction cannot exist without the other, being mutually dependent on each other: without wage labour, there is no capital and vice versa. This is the reason why this antagonism between capital and labour can be called a fundamental contradiction of capitalist societies (note: fundamental contradiction [Grundwiderspruch] does not mean primary contradiction [Hauptwiderspruch], or that other contradictions could only be derived from this fundamental contradiction — but more about that in a moment).

According to this definition, the majority of the working population in the developed capitalist countries actually belongs to the wage-earning class. The figure of the doubly free wage worker is more widespread than ever, even in the current information-technological mode of production. The discourse, found in newspaper supplements, of an “end of the (wage) labour society” proves to be narrow-minded nonsense in the face of an unprecedented global expansion of wage labour relations.

How many uprisings and revolutions began with the demand for bread?

Even in the so-called industrialized countries, employment rates have risen everywhere, especially due to the inclusion of female labour power. The basis upon which the classes are formed, i.e. the antagonistic contradiction between capital and labour, still exists. However, this does not yet say anything about the concrete composition of classes, since the wage-earning class — and it is only on this that we concentrate here — is differentiated in many ways.

These are complex and shifting dialectical processes of unification and differentiation, convergence, cooperation, and association as well as divergence, distinction, and division, which will be explained at least briefly below. These processes take place in at least three fields: the economic field, or more specifically the division and organization of labour (including the operational, social, and gender-based division of labour, also mental and manual labour), the field of everyday culture or the organization of everyday life, and the political field or the association and organization of the class, which will be discussed in the following paragraphs.

Anyone who wants to carry out an analysis of the wage-earning class has to take these different processes of unification and differentiation — across varied levels and fields — into account, and must to a certain extent do this by starting from the way in which class is divided. Anything else would be naive.

Structural Differentiation of the Class

Differentiation takes place across very different levels and moments. A simple look at the differences between a female developer in a high-tech industry and a male janitor, a female assembly worker in a car factory and a salesman at H&M, a female senior advisor at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation and a male care assistant in a private hospital group shows how wide the range is. Let us proceed systematically.

Position in the labour market and the production process: beyond wage dependency, the position in the production process is decisive. How indispensable is a particular position or how close is it to the productive core area of a company?

It is obvious that a highly-qualified female developer with specialist knowledge is more difficult to replace in a high-tech enterprise than the male janitor in the same enterprise. However, this depends less on the obvious differences in terms of qualifications than on the respective structural power.

This is because the special position of particular wage-dependent groups in the labour market (due to a shortage of labour power in general or in specific areas) can lead to greater market power, either because of high demand for a certain type of labour power or because of special skill sets. A strategic position in the creation of value may give rise to specific production power that other groups do not have. For example, workers who may have little or no formal education or professional training, such as those on the assembly line, at component suppliers, or in logistics, can paralyze entire production chains.

Position in the reproductive process: in order to be able to offer their full labour power on the market, a female wage labourer is required not only to be doubly free, but also triply, i.e. according to Marx, not only free from the means of production and free to sell their labour power, but also free from the necessary work of reproduction. The gender-specific division of labour and thus the subordination of women is addressed but not elaborated in Marx and Engels.

It is obvious: working for the reproduction of the labour force is an unpaid position, at best priced in through the so-called family wage. Although those labouring in reproduction practically all do the same thing — “they wash, clean, cook, raise children” — their singularized and isolated form of work sets up asymmetrical power relations — “their activities do not bring women together” (Kreutz/Stäbler 1988, 130). Whether work is organized in cooperative relations and as part of the circuit of capital, or outside of it, is therefore of paramount importance.

If reproductive work is organized as gainful employment, if it is brought into cooperative relations, this improves its position. However, its (re)production power is limited, since these activities are largely organized by the state or located in the public sector. A strike does not interrupt extensive, integrated production processes and does not bring about a loss of revenue, since the state or the municipality does not operate in a profit-oriented way.

If it is organized in the private sector, its (re)production power is nevertheless limited, since the main victims of strikes are the people who depend on the relevant sector: children, sick people, the elderly. This is one of the reasons for the structurally poorer payment of reproduction workers compared to production workers. The proximity or distance to the crucial areas of capitalist value creation thus plays a role — a state of affairs that feminist movements and women’s trade union organizations rightly want to change by valorizing and redistributing these activities.

Thus, Mariarosa Dalla Costa recalls that “to the degree that the working class has been able to organize mass struggles in the community, rent strikes, struggles against inflation generally, the basis has always been the unceasing informal organization of women there; secondly, that in struggles in the cycle of direct production women’s support and organization, formal and informal, has been decisive” (1972, 30). This is closely related to the next point because many reproductive sectors are organized within separate markets.

Position within the markets of everyday needs and class situation: beyond the position in the labour market, in production and reproduction, the position in other markets is also important. Depending on how sectors such as housing, health, care work, educational work, and so on are organized, the situations of the respective parts of a class are strongly influenced. Processes of differentiation, segmentation, and segregation are at work here.[4]

If these areas are organized along capitalist lines, then high rents, high food prices, the cost of treatment and medication in case of illness, or interest payments on loans all become the second form of exploitation via necessary consumption, culminating in the expropriation of wages and over-indebtedness. If these areas, or some of them, are provided for by the state, as social infrastructure at low prices or free of charge, they lose their commodity character or are de-commodified, at least partially.

The situation of the workers thus differs according to the level of wages, but also according to their access to commodities such as housing, health, and education. It also varies according to the situation on the housing, food, health, and credit markets (among others), or the degree of decommodification, state provision, and access to these goods.

Whether or not a wage-dependent group belongs to the ‘class’ as an intermediate class is not a question of objective definition, but rather of subjective aspects — of organization and class struggle.

“The most progressive parts of the workers’ and the trade union movement have always looked at life in its entirety ... Whether housing is affordable, whether there is a fast subway connection to work or a bus from the countryside to the city, whether the children are well cared for and have access to good education, whether humane care in old age, a patient-centric healthcare system, clean air, water, and energy are provided for” (Riexinger 2018, 11 et sq.): these questions of reproduction or public infrastructure play an important role. And how such public social infrastructure should be procured and financed is precisely the subject of distribution battles and class struggles (ibid.). It is not without reason that some of the strongest and most radical social movements and struggles take place in these areas.

How many uprisings and revolutions began with the demand for bread? The history reaches from the French and Russian revolutions to the outbreak of the uprisings of the short-lived Arab Spring. More comprehensively and poetically, the struggle for just wages (bread) and a humane working and living environment is expressed in the call for “bread and roses”.

Currently, it is the tenants’ movement, the struggle for a high-quality and well-staffed care sector, environmental movements against the “exploitation” of humans and nature, initiatives campaigning for a radical change to how we get around and for strong public transport services, and struggles for the rights of women and the LGBTQI+ community, and in opposition to the economic and physical violence committed against them — these communities are also politicizing everyday life as a sphere of class struggle.

Ambulance workers, paramedics, and call handlers from the London Ambulance Services with banners and placards on the picket line in London, December 2022. Photo: IMAGO/ZUMA Wire

Professions, Skill Hierarchies, Development of the Productive Forces, and Intermediate Classes

With E.P. Thompson, it should be remembered that the Industrial Revolution was “a phase of transition between two ways of life” and that at the beginning there was no unified working-class milieu, “but many different” (1963, 418).

Partly inherited from the era of artisanal production, specific identities were formed early on within the wage-earning class, professions being one example of this. From these, the first professional associations geared towards worker mutual support could be organized, which later formed the basis for the founding of trade unions, social insurance, and political organizations of the working class. Although initially existing in secret, out of these developed living institutions, alongside a culture and a way of life, and a collective consciousness of the working class (1963, 418–29).

Consequently, one of the most effective means of mobilization was and is not only the interpellation of the working class per se but also an appeal to specific professional ethics. The decisive factor is how open or closed, or inclusive/exclusive such associations are. In this way, the struggle of small, well-organized professional groups who occupy a special position within production can become the spearhead of a common class movement, or — following only their particular interests, i.e. professionalism — have a divisive effect by trying to secure advantages over other parts of the working class. The result hinges on the level and dynamics of the class struggles concerned.

Professional identities can be fortified by formal education and skill levels (and informal knowledge), especially if they present high barriers to taking up such professions, for example in craft guilds, or later chambers of doctors, lawyers, etc. The strengthening of general education (for example, in the educational expansion of the 1970s), not least through the opening of universities and the academization of numerous professions, created more of a level playing field in many of these identities and formal degrees.

But even more so, the development of the productive forces is destroying established professional identities and corresponding institutional arrangements. For example, Taylorism[5] and its connection with the Fordist assembly line was immediately directed against the unions in the US, which were still chiefly influenced by craftsmen and also to some extent professional trade unions. At the same time, however, their destruction created the basis for the inclusion of the so-called “mass workers” in organizing and led to the emergence of modern large-scale industrial unions.

With every revolution of productive forces, new skills and professions are necessarily created and old ones devalued. There is a relative rise or fall of certain class segments. This presents an unusual challenge when it comes to organising and class solidarity. The change in class composition (see, among others, Wright 1996; PAQ 1987, 11–23; Huws 2001; Candeias 2017) — e.g. through increasingly transnational structures of production, processes of the subjectivation of labour, changes in the organization of enterprises through “agile business” ideologies, or even the dissolution of company boundaries, or through digitalization and Industry 4.0 etc. — unsettles outdated identities and subjectivities and produces new ones.

Such upheavals always raise the question of which are the “most advanced” sections of the working class that can push forward the development of the whole of society. In general, this is done by relying on the so-called ascending groups, e.g. the scientific and technical minds, or elite cadre. But defining the “most advanced” groups is not that simple. The hopes placed on these groups during the 1960s and 1970s were often dashed — not always, but often enough, they could not be organized or did so in more professional organizations. Meanwhile the less qualified workers, often migrants and not considered capable of playing a leading role, were among the most radical and driving forces in May 1968 and thereafter.

Even decades later, despite their increasing importance in the production process, highly qualified programmers and engineers did not exactly show themselves to be groups central to unionization. This repeat experience gives rise to the question of whether these scientific and technical minds do not rather represent an intermediate class that does not (any longer) belong to the working class.

Some important criteria for the distinction would be: a) to what extent a formally wage-dependent group of employees gains real command power over foreign labour via delegation and thus takes over functions of capital; b) to what extent direct participation in profits, for example via bonuses or shares, causes a direct interest in profit increases and/or; c) to what extent members of this group act as organic intellectuals of capital, i.e. they ideologically organize not only the labour processes in practical terms but also persuade the subaltern groups to accept their own subordination, and thus legitimize the rule of capital.

Here, too, gradations would have to be taken into account: a traditional manager or director is certainly not to be counted among the wage-earning class, regardless of being in a formal employment relationship with capital. With the foreman or more generally with middle management and team leaders, the matter is more difficult. This corresponds exactly to the character of the intermediate classes, which are not “classes” in the true sense of the word — unlike the petite bourgeoisie or peasants, for example — but rather represent class segments that move between them (including processes of ascent and descent), depending on how they are included in ideological, cultural, or political projects, or how they work themselves into them.

This also applies to the growing intermediate class of the solo self-employed person or small business owner (with 1–2 employees), who are formally self-employed and possess their own means of production, but work predominantly under precarious conditions (see Bologna 2006 and Candeias 2008). The change in the mode of production itself repeatedly produces intermediate classes in new ways.

In Marx’s Grundrisse (Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy), he foresaw a development in which the worker “stands beside the production process rather than being his main agent” (MECW 29/91 [42/601]). He becomes the “overseer and regulator” (ibid.). The development of the productive forces, changes in the way work is organized, and the transnationalization of production since the 1970s have led to a revolution in the forms of work and occupations, the development of new professions and sectors, the formation of new groups of employees, and the mass involvement of women in the production process.

Ursula Huws searches for terms to understand a “global army of workers” whose “jobs involve processing information”, and asks “whether they might constitute a common class which is not delineated in most orthodox sociological taxonomies of class” (Huws 2010). Following E.P. Thompson, she sees “the making of the cybertariat”: “a growing complexity in the division of labour ... generates new groups standing between the paradigmatic proletariat and bourgeoisie” (Huws 2001, 2). In this way, she attempts to grasp the changes in production at the intersection of changing productive forces and wage labour relations in terms of class theory, initially with reference to the “objective class position” (ibid., 3).

Building on the works of Huws, the cybertariat can be described as a class fraction of “highly qualified, flexible workers, often employed in project work”, “who have discarded the old habitus of the worker, who are sceptical or even hostile to union organizational structures, whose activities are characterized by the operation/control of information and communication technology” (Candeias 2004, 398; 2001, 162 et sqq.), and who, so to speak, see themselves as “entreployees” (Arbeitskraftunternehmer, halfway between employee and entrepreneur).

The strike movements follow the changing composition of the working class. They are shifting to the service sector, gradually encompassing industries that have newly emerged or grown strongly.

“It is apparent that a new cybertariat is in the making. Whether it will perceive itself as such is another matter”, given its global dispersion and gendered, racist, and nationalist divisions and individualizing practices (Huws 2001, 20). The relationship to other factions of the working class is also central to this. The boundaries between different spheres of wage labour — even within the same company — are sometimes so pronounced that the different types of labour are no longer perceived as cooperative relationships (PAQ 1987, 61).

The decomposition and recomposition of the working classes is a consequence of the transnational “information-technological mode of production” (Ohm 2004, 436). Huws intervenes in discourses that are only able to recognize decomposition and confusion in this, or in a postmodernist way consider as obsolete the social classes and living labour which create value in a supposedly “dematerialized knowledge economy”. Like Thompson, she relies on a long learning process until that class segment “will also perceive itself as such”, i.e. until it forms itself into a class or class segment capable of action (Huws 2001, 20).

The elaboration of the concept of cybertariat in the face of the “accelerated revolution of the material productive forces” (PAQ 1975, 124) offers an opportunity to once again pose questions of the situation, of the division and unity of the working class, and of its subjective self-understanding and its transnational organization at the level of the information-technological mode of production. The term cybertariat is intended to refer to the emergence of a definable group of employees in information processing, and at the same time to a generalizing epochal tendency in which the working class coincides, both in terms of perspective and concept, with the cybertariat, because information-technological aspects infiltrate all working activities, including that of care work, and become central instances of control. The emergence of this specific group at a time when wage labour is less secure and there is a “generalized culture of insecurity” corresponds to the emergence of a precariat, because a large part of the emerging cybertariat also lives and works under precarious conditions (see Candeias 2017).

Whether or not a wage-dependent group belongs to the “class” as an intermediate class is not a question of objective definition, but rather of subjective aspects: of organization and class struggle — whether, for example, it is possible to involve production power in such a way that it becomes useful for the class as a whole and solidarity is formed. On the other hand, precariously employed people were for a long time regarded as a descending group that could not be organized. In recent years, however, they have become the main bearers of progressive struggles in sectors such as health, education, or trade (Candeias/Steckner 2015). Qualifications and skills, or the position in the production process do not suffice per se — the decisive factor is whether bonds of solidarity can be formed between the different parts of the class, i.e. how the trade union and political organization is constituted to productively combine the respective potentials, specific knowledge, and skills — this includes the question of organizational power.

The setting for the most advanced struggles has shifted. “The strike movements follow the changing composition of the working class. They are shifting to the service sector, gradually encompassing industries that have newly emerged or grown strongly” (Riexinger 2018, 118) such as trade, social and educational services, hospitals, and the service proletariat in logistics (Amazon), or other areas of digital platform capitalism (e.g. Deliveroo). Those involved in these struggles are increasingly women and migrants. “They refute the fact that classical white-collar workers or precariously employed people cannot organize and fight” (ibid.).

Class, Consumption, Culture

Consumption is nothing individual, but a “socially determined activity” (Aglietta 1976), closely interwoven with a particular society’s mode of production and living. Since the suppression of subsistence production in the capitalist centres, a large part of human needs in commodity societies based on the division of labour must be satisfied through money-mediated consumption: we do not take what we need, we buy what we can pay for. In capitalism, the reproduction of labour power — i.e. the daily expenditure of wage earners to pay for food, clothing, education, housing, raising children, leisure time, etc. — is at the same time a driving force for the valorization of capital.

The consumption of commodities and the circuit of capital form a structural interconnection between production, circulation, and consumption. In the “golden” decades of Fordism, this interconnection became evident in mass-produced goods such as the washing machine, television, and Volkswagen. They symbolized the triumph of the market economy through the satisfaction of all conceivable needs.

In the course of the neoliberal, information-technological mode of production that prevailed, the possibilities of placing the living conditions of wage earners at the service of capital accumulation were expanded even further: alongside the traditional forms of commerce — commodity for money — various financial products were established, which increasingly turned employees into borrowers. This was achieved through the introduction and expansion of payment in instalments, consumer credit, e-commerce, state-subsidized mortgage and building society loans, the invention of the credit card, or the privatization of pensions. In the course of this accelerated accumulation dynamic through private debt, capital was able to open up profitable new investment fields. A reduction to this credit-based consumption would be contrary to the valorization interests of capital. This is how historically specific modes of consumption have developed.

Needs are neither individual nor timeless. Consequently, they are not right or wrong per se but are historically conditioned, socially formed, and normatively modified. For example, in the “economic miracle on the Rhine” under Ludwig Erhard, consumption was expressly encouraged, saving was out. In the course of the permanent revolution of capitalist production, new needs are constantly being created, new standards set, new norms enforced. However, not all inclinations, wishes, and desires are satisfied equally, rather there is an emphasis on the profitable ones. Consumption is therefore not an activity of individuals or a particular kind of people, but a generalized lifestyle, a societal mode of consumption.

Nevertheless, not everyone has the same opportunities to satisfy their needs in the prevailing fashion, especially since consumer behaviour differs significantly depending on available cash, socialization, and status. Although the generalized image of the consumer erases every difference in class, race, and gender, advertising pursues, for example, milieu- or gender-specific sales strategies and specifically addresses customer groups. Consumer behaviour is arranged in terms of class: luxury consumption is juxtaposed with food banks, shopping in an organic supermarket with a visit to discount stores like Aldi or Lidl. This has consequences for the critique of consumption (see below also Candeias/Steckner 2014).

Class-specific consumption patterns have an impact in numerous fields: people with the necessary disposable income, who sometimes turn up their noses at the consumer habits of broad sections of the population, achieve distinction through price, quality, and exclusivity. Wealthy people and members of the upper-middle class occupy larger apartments or houses with corresponding energy and water requirements, are more likely to own a second or third apartment, have more hobbies which require a lot of space (golf, riding, tennis, sailing) and undertake more frequent and longer journeys, often long-distance air travel — as do their children. They drive the more luxurious car, or several, frequent restaurants with select menus, and purchase more exotic products made of precious, rare materials — with or without a sustainability seal of approval. Their ecological footprint is on average considerably larger, even if they buy from their local market and do not buy pineapples flown in from abroad, and their resource consumption is higher than that of the incriminated masses. Their consumer behaviour, therefore, raises the ecological question differently and reveals the relations of social inequality.

Consumption signals status. The (repeated) purchase of a new mobile phone, the wearing of the brand-name clothes that are currently in vogue, a huge flat-screen TV, or easyJet flights to another city over a long weekend all not only serve to satisfy needs, but also denote one’s status in relation to others. Common sense knows that this is ecologically unacceptable. But in the commodity society, consumption is not only the satisfaction of needs but also a way to participate in society and mobility.

Laptops and smartphones, for example, are by no means just the technical equipment in the “knowledge society”, but are the ticket to social networks, i.e. to places where contacts are made and maintained, the news is exchanged, but also where hierarchy and competition reign, in short: where society takes place. Being able to participate in this society is particularly important for all those who do not have other means of power and influence, which therefore makes it an issue of class.

In alienated relationships, consumption is also compensation. It provides a short-term sense of significance and enables participation in society’s promises of happiness. Where genuine political participation in shaping the economy and society is denied, private consumption gives back some control over personal decisions and preferences. The formative effect that owning possessions has on one’s self-esteem was put in a nutshell by Erich Fromm: “you are what you have”. In addition to the omnipresent incentive to consume — triggered by aggressive advertising, especially on the internet — the capacity to consume can become a criterion for inclusion and exclusion, for social standing, status, culture, prestige, and taste.

Pierre Bourdieu (1984) shows the partially invisible mechanisms of distinction, which work, for example, through language, embodied habitus and, not least, taste. Individual advancement from disadvantaged circumstances, from a milieu of the proletarian working class, is possible through the acquisition of education and specific qualifications, with promotion and a little luck, but certain relations of recognition remain, which mark one as a member of the lower class.

Didier Eribon, regarding his own biography, has wonderfully described how he became a “class refugee” and yet could not escape his class. A feeling of alienation remained (Eribon 2018), because invisible boundaries of recognition and respectability, so to speak, are drawn from “above”. At the same time, a proletarian counterculture that articulates resistance, for example, can also reproduce its own discrimination, as Paul Willis (1983) shows.

The mode of living as a generalization of individual forms of lifestyle, therefore, differentiates itself not only through consumption but also through cultural differences. Class is simply “a cultural as much as an economic formation” (Thompson 1963, 13).

Class Milieus and Class Segments

Class is thus segmented not only along its respective position in the process of production and reproduction, its position in various markets, along professions and skills and their corresponding identities and subjectivities, i.e. along similar “external” or “objective” situations, but also along “internal” or “subjective” attitudes.

For example, divisions along religious, ethnic, or national lines within the working class have often been deeper than would be expected with “objective” interests. The Catholic and Protestant workers’ movement has perhaps been less influential in the history of Germany than the socialist one — although this would be up for debate. In terms of numbers, however, the former was superior to the latter, so that in this quantitative sense it was not so much the Social Democrats (SPD) or other left-wing parties but rather the Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) that represented the post-war workers’ party.

The emergence of the labour movement itself is based on a “long continuity of popular milieus” (Vester 2018, 896), their cultural traditions, societies and relief funds, communities and associations, and on traditional and resistant forms of solidarity and mutual assistance (see Thompson 1963). The demarcation of such milieus seems on the surface to rather be a side-effect; what is crucial is the formation of an internal social-moral cohesion (if this might be jeopardized, the outward demarcation can step in to reactively stabilize the situation).

For Thompson, such a “moral economy” based on ideas of legitimacy and basic moral assumptions of good or acceptable living and working conditions is crucial, not only for the internal cohesion of the class but also for the relationship between the classes of capital and labour. Whenever this “moral economy” has been seriously violated — through lack of respect, excessive pricing, over-exploitation, morally reprehensible actions on the part of the ruling classes — this could become the spark for history’s great uprisings, insurrections, and (food) riots, even revolutions.

Antonio Gramsci, for example, had already examined different milieus in his Prison Notebooks: such as “traditional” and “popular milieus”, the “primitive milieu” of the urban lower class, the “industrial worker milieu”, the “banal bourgeois milieu”, and so on (see Vester 2018, 903). Bourdieu points out that the attitudes (the “habitus”) and abilities are absorbed in the socialization of the milieus, as it were, through the skin, “in an osmotic way ... without any methodological effort nor any manifest influence” (as cited in Vester 2018, 904).

In addition, however, there is an active moment of subjectivation (in contrast to simple socialization), in which social individuals fill the always-existing space of possibility.

When read in Gramscian terms, this therefore also ascribes the possibility of overcoming the milieu which spontaneously appears to hold the individuals in their predetermined social positions based on their background (see Candeias 2007 on Unmaking and Remaking, also 2017). Today, as then, it has been possible time and again for different class segments and different milieus to develop overarching forms of organization, even to form socialist “milieus”.

In this way (through processes of differentiation) diverse class segments are formed. Where there are hardly any overlapping relationships of common cooperation, commerce, and communication, where the ways of working and living diverge, where they are largely separate, a fragmentation of the class can occur (e.g. the French smallholding peasantry in Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire, MECW 11/99-197 [8/113–207]). It is, therefore, crucial to create common organizations and everyday places of solidarity, learning, and common political practice. The formation of common interests cannot simply be based on equal living conditions and class situations but must be politically organized through alliances between different groups.

Class Consciousness and Organization

With Marx, one could say that in societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, the class of the wage earners can be objectively considered a given. But is this class also active as its own subjective conscious force?

Well, it engages in political struggle, and always has. It does not only gain consciousness when it organizes itself, but it also has its own particular consciousness of both the everyday and political struggle in each period: specific attitudes and convictions, prejudices and traditions, and more or less spontaneous, handed-down, or developed forms of organization. In the words of E.P. Thompson (1963), class struggle and class consciousness have always been there: they precede, so to speak, the “class for itself”, according to Marx in the Poverty of Philosophy (MECW 6/211 [4/181]) — meaning the process of purposeful and systematic social organization as a class that strives to abolish class society.

The central elements of class formation are its “economic”, “civil societal”, and “political” forms of organization. To simplify matters one could say: trade unions, (re)productive solidarity structures of everyday life (cooperatives, associations, initiatives/movements), and political parties. Reducing the trade union in this way to simply being a form of economic class struggle, or movements to just being part of everyday life, or reducing the party to the political sphere or indeed parliament, would itself already be part of the problem (on the relationship between politics and economy in Marx, see Hall 1977).

Everyone is and must be active in all of these social spheres in different ways. So “it is impossible to separate the economic and the political factors from one another” (Luxemburg 2004, 194 [GW 2, 127]). This can already be seen, for example, in the debate over the political mandate of the trade unions or over the party’s anchoring in numerous initiatives, movements, and even trade unions, or the importance of solidarity structures as socio-economic pillars of reproduction and places of political self-education.

It is in these places that the subjugated classes and groups (self-)organize themselves collectively and become active together in different fields. Here (class) experiences are generalized and a common (class) practice in the (class) struggle is formed.

The formulation and articulation of particular interests is necessary to be able to enter into an association with other groups and class factions at all — not to find commonality in struggle, but rather to produce it.

Apart from the above-mentioned structural power which relates directly to the position in the (re)production process, the so-called power resource approach (Brinkmann et al. 2008, Dörre et al. 2016) is distinguished from other potential forms of power for the wage-earning class in the following way: having the organizational power that can only emerge from combining forces into collective political or trade union organizations. Their actions aim to limit capital’s control over the use of labour power, and/or aim to fight other relations of oppression and domination, to become a social force for the transformation of society with the purpose of achieving cross-group and cross-class cooperation and power in societal debates, and to lead hegemonic struggles which branch out into the wider society.

The associated problems of organization, and the relationship between representation and self-organization/empowerment, have always been and are widely discussed in Marxism — from Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme, through Lenin’s, Kollontai’s, and Luxemburg’s critiques of certain forms of trade union practices and the bureaucracy in the party, or Gramsci’s complex theory of hegemony, as well as Spivak’s fundamental question of “can the subaltern speak?” or whether they become inaudible/visible through the form of class organization, to name but a few examples (Luxemburg 2004, Gramsci 1971, and Spivak 2010). The fundamental strategic question is always: what is to be done, who is going to do it, with whom, and how?

In order to gain the capacity to act, it is necessary to work out a generalization of interests that respects differences, starting from the contradictory constellations in which everyone must operate. Specific interests must be reconnected and solidarity developed. This is what Gramsci means by the process of development from the economic-corporate to the ethical-political phase.

The following may seem paradoxical: the marking of differences, both discursive and organizational, is a prerequisite for generalization. The formulation and articulation of particular interests, as well as the creation of one’s own organizations and networks, is necessary in order to be able to enter into an association with other groups and class factions at all, not to find commonality in struggle, but rather to produce it. This applies not only to the different parts of the wage-earning class but also to their relationship to other subaltern groups and classes, be it, for example, the women’s or ecological movements or other classes such as the (small) peasants (see, in particular, Lenin’s writings on this subject) or parts of the petty bourgeoisie, intellectuals, or even parts of the enlightened factions of capital.

The wage-earning class is already with Marx, not simply the class that has to assert its particular interest against others, but rather the universal interest to abolish all relations of oppression and class. In concrete terms, this means, first of all, to already include the interests of all potential allies beyond one’s own class or group in the formulation of an ethical-political project of hegemony.

Another source of power is institutional power, if it is possible to establish social compromises institutionally and legally, for example through collective bargaining law, labour law, statutory social insurance, etc. Herein lies the significance of the struggle for the welfare state (as a so-called “second wage”) and the regulation of work, for the possible decommodification of the commodity of labour power and the necessary conditions of reproduction (housing, health, education etc.), but also gender relations, voting rights, fundamental social and political rights, and so on. Gramsci and later Poulantzas, in particular, make it clear that the state is not simply the extended arm of the bourgeoisie, but itself a field of class struggle, in which the wage-earning class builds its bastions and strongholds through a “war of position” (Gramsci).

Political Factionalism and Integration into Historical Blocs: Hegemony

The enormous heterogeneity of the wage-earning class must, through its different forms of organization in solidarity and horizontal multiplicity, be fruitfully connected. But this heterogeneity also provides the basis for targeted processes of division from the ruling side, through factionalism and the inclusion of parts of the working class in hegemonic projects.

In a hegemonic project, the needs and interests of the subjects must be redefinable in order for the project to be wanted and actively pursued by the subjects.

Without the active element of consent, hegemony would be reduced to coercion and violence. Accordingly, hegemony involves not only the capacity of a class or an alliance of “representing or dictating (i.e., imposing) its project as that of society as a whole” (Lipietz 2003, 240; see also MECW 5/60 [3/47]), but it involves the actual “process of generalization of interests in a precariously-balanced compromise” (Demirović 1992, 154, emphasis added) in the form of a “passive revolution” (Gramsci).

For Gramsci, accordingly, hegemony means “the dominant group is coordinated concretely with the general interests of the subordinate groups, and the life of the state is conceived of as a continuous process of formation and superseding of unstable equilibria … — equilibria in which the interests of the dominant group prevail, but only up to a certain point, i.e. stopping short of narrowly corporate economic interest” (Gramsci 1971, N. 13, §17, 182).

The ruling group — in the words of Demirović summarizing Poulantzas (1975b, 139) — “thus by no means enforces its interests in a pure form, but on the one hand penetrates those of the other factions through generalization and polarization, and on the other hand absorbs their interests through the same process of generalization” (Demirović 1987, 64). But within certain limits, it determines the grounds “on which the respective compromise of the various factions is based” (ibid.). The ruling group will, therefore, make concessions and sacrifices of an “economic-corporate kind”, “but there is also no doubt that such sacrifices and such a compromise cannot touch the essential” (Gramsci 1971, N. 13, §18, 161).

A hegemonic project, to be understood as the articulation of the many social practices and interests in a compromise, is thus supported by a historical bloc of social forces that includes the “rulers” and the “ruled”. It is the result of the concrete relations of force in the struggle for hegemony.

From the ruling side, parts of the subaltern have always been broken out of the class and integrated into a hegemonic project. They are in this way “dividing the class struggle, internally” (Hall 1980, 214). This is not a phenomenon of consciousness but is connected with the realization of actual interests.

In Fordism, given the relations of force and a strengthening workers' movement, this resulted in a broad-based class compromise, which also produced an exterior, and was patriarchally and paternalistically shaped. In neoliberalism, the basis for class compromise became narrower and narrower and was increasingly limited to so-called core workforces and rising high-tech specialists.

The nationalism of export and location, bought at the price of austerity and wage restraint, still ensure certain, albeit contested, participation for parts of the class. This kind of class compromise is associated with high costs, such as forced subordination, and tightened flexibility and performance requirements, etc. With its ever-smaller concessions, it simultaneously mobilizes enormous “fears of not being able to keep up in the universal struggle of all against all” (W.F.Haug 1993, 228).

In such a situation — instituted from above, from the ruling side — racism, for example, serves to divide the working class. The essential social effect of racism is the shift of the vertical class conflict (between the ruling bloc and subaltern groups and classes) towards a horizontal conflict within the wage-earning class (see Balibar 1991; Candeias 2018).

The diversity and differences within the wage-earning class turn into hard divisions and politically independent factionalism of the class — perhaps the most pronounced forms of class division. Beyond differentiation and segmentation through different positions in the (re)production process, different identities, traditions or habitus, or through fragmentation due to a lack of cooperation, commercial and communication relations, a faction is characterized by its intended political effect. “Factions, to the extent that they become autonomous, are capable, unlike strata”, milieus, segments, or groups, “of constituting themselves as social forces” (Poulantzas 1975a, 85)

Secondary Contradictions? Structural Elements!

The antagonism between capital and labour is the fundamental contradiction in societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails. It permeates all other social relations, giving them a specific form. Changed societal relations of production lead to changed gender relations, lifestyles, a change in the relationship to racial identity, or how the state relates to its subjects. But beware: at the very latest since Althusser (in 1965 with Pour Marx and 1970 with Lire le Capital, and actually also since Marx, MECW 28/37 [42/34]), we have known that the economic does not simply determine other relations, but rather is a complex process of reciprocal over-determination.

Nevertheless, it is not the case that we have class relations, and then, say, gender relations or racism come along and further complicate matters. Rather, gendered or racialized relations have already entered into the constitution of concrete class relations, structuring them — and vice versa. The gendered division of labour determines the concrete form of the collective labourer, the state etc. — “since the entire class exploitation has been built upon the specific mediation of women’s exploitation”, as Dalla Costa puts it (1972, 39; see also Lise Vogel 2000).

Thus, gender relations as relations of production (Frigga Haug 2017) permeate the whole of society, just as class relations do, but the other way around. This also applies to the question of racism (see Hall 1980 and Balibar 1991). Therefore, these are not derived relations — even secondary contradictions — but structural elements in a complexly articulated whole (see W.F.Haug 1999). For the investigation of a complex whole, there is no longer the possibility of starting out from zero. Nevertheless, an “epistemological cut”[6] must be made, which “is not arbitrary but founded in the matter itself” (Weber 1994, 617): a specific starting point must be chosen, a viewing direction, so to speak, from which the whole is to be examined — just as, for example, the terms mode of production and mode of living do not examine two separate spheres, but rather consider the whole from different vantage points.[7]

In the polarized debate, for example, over whether the rise of right-wing populism and then of the radical Right is due more to social factors or widespread racism, one could counter with Stuart Hall: “[t]he problem here is not whether economic structures are relevant to racial divisions but how the two are theoretically connected” (1980, 176). Nor is it up for debate whether people make racist categorizations, “but rather, what are the specific conditions which make this form of [racist] distinction socially pertinent, historically active” (212).[8]

Which one of them constitutes the “fundamental contradiction” depends on the given circumstances of the strategy. It may well be that in a specific historical situation there is no political impetus in the direct confrontation between capital and labour in the workplace, but there is a political impetus towards the issues of housing or the climate, which in itself poses systematic challenges. This is also regionally very different: it may therefore be that a religiously dominated capitalist regime, such as in Saudi Arabia, would be more threatened by a women’s uprising than by the often-suppressed small actions of the workers.

Reducing the trade union to simply a form of economic class struggle, or movements to just part of everyday life, or reducing the party to the political sphere or indeed parliament would itself already be part of the problem.

It is doubtful, however, whether there is a single point at which capitalist rule can be hit at its core. There is no controlling social centre. This also applies to the state as a concentrated social relation of forces. Accordingly, in developed societies, a revolution along the lines of the storming of the Winter Palace is hardly effective. “In Russia the State was everything, civil society was primordial and gelatinous; in the West, there was a proper relation between State and civil society, and when the State trembled a sturdy structure of civil society was at once revealed. The State was only an outer ditch, behind which there stood a powerful system of fortresses and earthworks”, says Gramsci (1971, N.7, §16, 238).

The ultimate determinant can only be concretized through the structure of social relations. Alain Lipietz (1998, 111 et sq.) accordingly understands concrete society as being a specific articulation of a relationship of relationships. Frigga Haug (2013) calls this interwovenness of relationships a knot of domination. Anyone who wants to analyze class relations must devote themselves to this interwovenness.

However, paraphrasing Marx, overthrowing all relations (of domination and oppression) all at the same time is not so easy. It is necessary to start somewhere: to get a hold of a thread, a productive social struggle, in order to disentangle the knot. This is a question of strategy. A connective, socialist class politics can provide a useful point of orientation.

Hundreds of thousands joined the #unteilbar demonstration for social solidarity in Berlin on 13 October 2018. Photo: IMAGO/IPON

Political Strategy and Connective Class Politics

Class is therefore divided in a variety of ways, along lines of division that are professional and generational, related to formal education, to gender, to ethno-national and other (self-)attributions, or to one’s position within the social process of (re)production. It is clear that the class cannot be presupposed, but rather that manifold differentiations, segmentations, fragmentations, or even divisions must be assumed. This has never been otherwise. In this respect, it is always a matter of the making and re-making of class.

However, the resulting differences are so profound, constituting such different experiences, life situations, and interests, that it would be questionable to revert to simple and essentialist ideas of the unification of interests, wanting to (re)establish the “unity” of the class. Frank Deppe asks the question of whether perhaps even “the political concept of class unity would have to be fundamentally modified or simply abandoned” (Deppe 1981, 78).

Our answer would be “yes”. Above all, there can be no single class identity in the narrower sense. Demirovic (2007) writes that, although “class and identity are not opposites”, they can become opposites “in special constellations”. “The goal of emancipatory practice is to overcome both ‘class’ and ‘identity’. These emancipatory practices are thus confronted with a contradiction in that they have to refer to the identities against which they are simultaneously directed: the ambiguous identity of ‘class’, ‘race’, or ‘gender’”.

In the spirit of Gramsci, the different experiences and interests of this diverse class should be concretely connected and thus generalized, without again sweeping differences and specific important interests under the carpet in the name of unity (see Candeias 2010). The Left must connect very different segments of the class. It must learn and relearn how to translate its ideas for the masses. This is the intention of the concept of connective class politics (for an in-depth look at this, see Riexinger 2018).

Connective class politics can help to: a) clearly articulate a connection between the ruling classes “above” and the radical Right. It can: b) more keenly sharpen and separate out the social question, i.e. class-oriented, in contrast to the general (social-democratic) talk of social justice. It can free the class question from its fixation on the old, often male-dominated working class and develop it further into a feminist and gender non-conforming (queer), ecological class politics, into class-conscious anti-racism — at the same time, it enables these movements to position themselves more clearly on the Left. It can: c) overcome the false opposition between the social question and (putative) identity politics. Feminism and ecology are not only something for “the elite” — but also class issues. And in this context: d) projects and practices must be developed that go beyond the usual suspects and that especially also cover those “below” — whether or not they have a migrant background — and that are also supported by those same groups. This relates to those who lack formal qualifications, precarious sections of the class, those who live predominantly in disadvantaged neighbourhoods, and those who are generally less organized and less likely to vote.

Here it is necessary to overcome exclusionary barriers such as spatial segregation, classifications, and not being considered “respectable” — through carrying out outreach work (from leftist emancipatory organizations), or to do little things that might seem difficult, such as knocking on “their” front doors, listening, getting into a conversation, entering into the concrete work of organising together. These practices are the litmus test of connective class politics.

In this way, the new class politics could act as a kind of “connective antagonism” (Candeias 2017), which brings together different groups, class segments, and movements across the different issues and political fields, with an orienting approach and focusing on struggles with definite opponents, without negating the differences between those different class segments. This is because it is only by considering everything as a whole that the aforementioned “knot” of different relations of domination can be cut.

These are — extremely condensed — the core ideas of a strategy for connective class politics. There have been manifold experiences for these practices, but they were not systematically generalized and linked together. The theoretical and strategic approaches of the “connective party”[9] (see Candeias 2020) and “connective class politics” are attempts to take these into account.

Their basis was also provided by debates on the interrelationships of the broader Left: for example, about the leftist coalition, usually, only a juxtaposition, sometimes also a connection of the active parts, but only of the politically active parts, for an alliance of the middle and lower classes (Brie/Candeias 2017) — but this increasingly lacked the “lower” part. The German socialist party Die Linke was able to actively integrate and represent the long-term unemployed. However, this has decreased over the years — both the potential for protest and Die Linke’s hopes have faded over the years of continued neoliberal deterioration. Other organizations had a similar fate. The Right forced their way into the gap.

It was necessary to return the party to being an organizing party, present in everyday life, and one which encouraged and empowered people to take things into their own hands. There was also a need to take a better look at the party’s determined and post-vanguard[10] role vis-à-vis other parts of the leftist coalition, for example its movements, initiatives, or trade unions.

But who makes up a class? If you want to examine a particular class, you have to look at how it has changed.

In the opinion pages of newspaper supplements and in many political debates, not only on the Left, “class” is back, usually combined with a story about the advance of the Right. However, the images of class that are often conveyed in the process are strangely one-dimensional, almost old-fashioned, and refer only to a very specific class segment. On the other hand, other segments are then downplayed or alleged to not belong to the class at all. The debate accordingly becomes polarized, producing hard and false oppositions from real differences: identity versus class politics, or even cosmopolitans versus communitarians (see Demirovic 2007).

In my view, this is, in political terms, the highly problematic expression of being unable to adequately grasp differences and conflicts within the class. In comparison, the diversity of the class is lost. Yet this diversity must be made visible again without dissolving its interrelations: we must make their voices and respective class histories audible again (see Bhattacharya 2017). What do they think and feel: the coal miners in Lusatia, the industrial worker threatened by digitalization, the DHL delivery driver at the end of a computerized logistics chain, the nurses in modern private hospital groups, the computer engineers who find that their knowledge and expertise is quickly devalued by new technologies and younger competitors, or the young, urban precariat who have degrees and qualifications, but nevertheless face uncertain prospects?

Parallel to the development and improvement of a new class politics, there is the need for a renewal of critical class analysis and class theory, which in turn can inform class politics and provide a basis for more targeted work. In this process, demands are also being made of academia: as much as I appreciate, for example, the works of Bourdieu, late-period Wacquant, Castel, or others, they refer all too often to the decomposition of the old working class, to its fragmentation, to the non-class. The remaking of class is not the centre of attention.

Class is and always has been permanently in flux, and this in a double sense, i.e. through objective and subjective moments: old class relations are torn apart and reassembled through being permanently remodelled by capital and the revolutionary dynamics of the development of productive forces. Old milieus are disintegrating, new ones are emerging, but seemingly more fragmented, plural, more female, immigrant, and precarious. Certain segments of the class are receding — for example, certain professional groups of qualified skilled workers — while others are rising. This is associated with insecurity, resentment, resignation, and anger, but also with the altered subjectivities, demands, and aspirations of the subjects: a continuous stream of new approaches to struggles, just in changing combinations.

What is crucial here is that based on differences within the wage-earning class — who are the objects of hegemonic struggles — divisions and factionalism are produced in different ways through the integration of parts of the class into projects of governance. These divisions are to be taken seriously, to be assessed properly: they have a limiting effect on action, but they are not immutable. In contrast to these tendencies, what receives far less focus is investigating potential means of improving solidarity. This is a problem of lack of understanding.

It is crucial to identify a number of projects that will bring about immediate improvements and at the same time change the relations of power and ownership — and thus produce exemplary struggles.

And last but not least, numerous class struggles take place — not only in production or gainful employment but also in the field of reproductive labour and care — looking after social infrastructure, nursing and care work, the gendered division of labour, housing, liveable surroundings and urban spaces, and so on. Yet these are rarely negotiated as questions of class.

But then it would become clearer that the concept of interests must be expanded again. All this has been done before, both theoretically and in practice, for example by trade unions. Individuals have manifold interests. Some of them are in opposition, cutting right through the core of the subjects. So let’s look at humanity as a whole. In this respect, interests are not given but are permanently formed in confrontations; in the best case this is enacted together. The struggles are correspondingly more diverse. Since the thesis of the “demobilized class society” (Dörre 2019) does not mean that there are no struggles, there is always a counter-movement that needs to be tied in.

Making “class experiences” in this broad sense the subject of a conflict-oriented analysis again can be a starting point for practices of solidarity. How can the different class segments be connected? How, then, can a new class analysis empirically and theoretically accompany the strategy of a “connective class politics” that has become central for a section of the Left? For this, we would need more support and productive criticism.

How to act in such dynamic, unsettled times? How to break through a situation in which the Left is currently barely visible? Although the strategy of connective class politics and organizing shows progress in many areas and is able to actively involve more people in concrete social struggles and to motivate them to join left-wing organizations (e.g. Die Linke), it has a long-term vision and thus takes time (and is far from being systematically anchored in the party or social movements).

The contradictions are our hopes, says Brecht. How true. But these hopes cannot, of their own accord, be placed in our hands. What is needed is an active intensification of those contradictions.

It is crucial to identify a number of projects that will bring about immediate improvements and at the same time change the relations of power and ownership — and thus produce exemplary struggles: for example, the employees of the Charité hospital in Berlin and the issue of assessing staff, or the “Deutsche Wohnen & Co enteignen” initiative (which aimed to expropriate large housing companies such as Deutsche Wohnen) that began in Berlin. Such struggles with specific goals should start with everyday needs, aim for immediate improvement for the individual, and create a dynamic for the next steps and further perspectives. This includes disruptive practices such as strikes, occupations, blockades and, if necessary, a referendum.

These qualities of self-empowerment and persistence are central to expanding the space of possibility — only a short time ago, we would have thought that a campaign to expropriate real estate companies could not succeed under any circumstances. Such a movement provides visibility, inspires, and motivates.

A campaign of this kind offers opportunities to bring previously fragmented initiatives and organizations together in a concrete way. If it is successful, it shifts the social discourse, i.e. the balance of forces, and thus expands the scope of possibilities. It also increases the clout of other demands (for example, the expropriation campaign has directly improved the field of discourse for the rent cap and inspired radical considerations in other fields).

The fact that protest movements can be tremendously enjoyable can be seen even on a small scale in local neighbourhood organizations. When a campaign then bears fruit locally and connects with others, people feel part of something bigger. Even for those who do not want to or cannot become active themselves, this can radiate a new attractiveness: they sense that someone is taking on powerful interests for all of us — not conducting distant campaigns from their ivory towers, but rather achieving real change. The organizing work — connecting, broadening, and anchoring — is central to growth. And it can combine (self-)organization with a vigorous representation.

So what are the three or four central social issues that need to be solved and that are suited to developing such a campaign that is productive for the Left? Specific references to the antagonist are necessary in each case. Tactically as well as strategically, one should be as precise as possible so that the antagonist does not remain abstract: for example, by researching the background of investors, the machinations of a company. Who pockets the profits of this or that hospital corporation at the expense of patients and staff? Who supplies which armaments to crisis areas? Who blocks an ecological revolution in transport with diesel fraud, corruption, and so on?

Here it is all about a targeted blaming of the antagonist. A strident, stirring tone of our own political language is part of this. In this way, a connective, socialist class politics can practically highlight why struggles for better working conditions, wages, and working hours, but also for reproduction — health, housing, ecology — are still class struggles. For this is not evident in the industrial sector (tradition of industrial relations, incorporation into export corporatism, or the digital pact) and even less so in the service sector, least of all in the area of public social infrastructure, or even in terms of the issue of climate change.

Barbarism is once again conceivable.

For example, the myth that we are all in the same boat in the ecological crisis, and that the rich cannot escape it either, is utter nonsense, both globally and within society, given the extremely unequal distribution of causes and consequences structured along class lines. Besides the reference to the antagonist, there is always a need for connective (and usually quite general) slogans for a socio-ecological system change, positive projects, a mixture of achievable goals and forward-looking demands and initiatives.

In an era of social polarization, a radical perspective is crucial. It is not simply a matter of defending the welfare state or returning to a nation-state model of regulating capitalism. We should make it clear that as leftists, we are working towards the end of capitalism, for a society that Bernie Sanders blithely calls socialism. This includes things that go without saying, such as free healthcare and education and affordable housing for all, free public goods and services — from libraries to public transport and the networks of the “fundamental economy of everyday life”, much more time for each other and for living, democratic participation that makes a difference — in other words, real democracy.

Socialism would first of all be laying claim to self-evident rights. Old socialist problems, such as questions of power and property, redistribution, planning, and democracy, are brought up to date and linked to new problems — from the perspective of expanding the common control over the immediate living conditions, and over society’s means of production and reproduction.

A decidedly socialist perspective can be helpful by doing two things: a) it can offer a perspective in an open and combative search process that binds the different fields together again so that everything does not devolve into individual policies and initiatives; and b) it can try to link the different interests and movements in the sense of “revolutionary Realpolitik” in such a way that it not “only sets itself achievable goals that it pursues to obtain by the most effective means in the shortest route”, but “in all the parts of its endeavours, in its entirety, goes beyond the bounds of the existing order”, to (want to) get down to the root of things (Luxemburg 1903, GW 1.2, 373).

This is because, perhaps, it may already be time to make a decision. Forces that only want to work for the preservation of those civil liberties that accord with liberal values and minimum standards of solidarity must take sides just as much against neoliberalism as against authoritarianism, i.e. also for a more radical Left orientation. Now is the decisive moment, in a phase of interregnum, when different options are still open but are already beginning to close.

Barbarism is once again conceivable — and this is normal during the transition to a new societal project (whether capitalist or not). A socialist project can at the same time invoke necessity due to unresolved, escalating human problems and the danger of barbarism, as well as feed on desires/longing for the future/a tangible utopia. A socialist “narrative” is indispensable, at the same time it must be very concrete, developed out of socialist interventions. The adjective “socialist” refers to praxis — not to a finished blueprint.

That said, one does not have to share this strategic orientation of connective and socialist class politics to benefit, both in terms of theory and politics, from a better understanding of class analysis.

Concepts are the instruments with which we try to grasp reality, so it is important to once again make it possible to voice concepts such as class and class politics. At the same time, it is important to beware of voluntarism or “Begriffsrealismus[11] (conceptual realism), “i.e., to the conflation of concept and reality, and even to Begriffsidealismus, i.e., the attribution to a concept of capacities for self-actualization” (Jessop 2004, 50).

Likewise, it is important to beware of an objectivism that gets lost in complex class differentiation. It makes only limited sense to treat class as a statistical artefact, to break it down into its various segments, milieus, and groups, to record its respective weight purely quantitatively. Rather, it is crucial to develop a class analysis that captures class in constant flux, as objectively formed and self-forming, as organizing and fighting in specific conflicts on every level and in all social spheres. It is necessary to understand class as being concretely historical, i.e. operating within contemporary society “in a fluid state, in motion” (Marx, Capital I, 103 [23/31]).

The analysis of class is not an “end in itself” (Gramsci 1971, N. 13, §17, 185). Rather, it serves to explore the conditions of the social agency of the subaltern classes.


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[1] MECW refers to the English Marx/Engels Collected Works. When citing the MECW or Capital, subsequent citations in square brackets refer to Marx-Engels-Werke (MEW), Dietz-Verlag, Berlin 1965 et sqq.

[2] I would like to thank Anne Steckner for important suggestions when writing the text.

[3] You do not have to be a Marxist to realize this. Every man “must be rich or poor according to the quantity of that labour which he can command, or which he can afford to purchase”, wrote Adam Smtih (1776, 47).

[4] E.g. with a two-tier system of medicine, a strongly class-segmented school system, which is also spatially concentrated and divided into “good” and “problem” schools, or the spatial concentration of wealth and poverty in corresponding “residential areas”.

[5] Named after Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856–1915), who established the principle of “scientific management” of the labour process. Taylorism specifically refers to the decomposition of the labour process into the smallest steps and the reduction of the worker to executing only isolated, repetitive operations of the overall labour process or, as Gramsci calls it, the reduction of the worker to a “trained gorilla” (1971, N. 12, §1, 8).

[6] Epistemology is the theory of knowledge, here meant in the sense of the question of how to gain knowledge.

[7] The whole matter is further complicated by the simultaneous and again interwoven existence of different modes of production (and lifestyles), see Meillasoux 1981 or Hall 1980.

[8] Under conditions of a generalized culture of insecurity in neoliberalism, the mixture of intensified demands, impositions, one’s own experiences of devaluation, and attempts at self-stabilization through racist and other (e.g. sexist) forms of devaluation results in a radical right-wing articulation of phenomena that are initially independent. The radical Right enables individuals to engage in a nonconformist conformism, in which the stance of resistance is rhetorically directed against the governing systems, but in practice simultaneously calls upon them to devalue and exclude the “Other”, immigrants, etc. Racism from “below” then becomes understandable as loss of agency and reactionary self-empowerment (see Candeias 2018).

[9] Gramsci expands the understanding of the party in such a way that parties as a social force are a specific form of the struggles for hegemony. Not just “technical organizations”, as he writes, but an “active social bloc”, i.e. a concrete connection of different forces and organizations, of which parties in the narrower sense, which compete in elections, for example, are only one, albeit important, part.

[10] In contrast to the understanding of a cadre party of professional revolutionaries or, later on, functionaries, which sees itself as the vanguard of the proletariat or the subaltern classes.

[11] Begriffsrealismus (conceptual realism) refers to the notion that “the concepts themselves constitute an entity of their own (Ansichseiendes) and are, at least to a certain extent, autonomous and independent in relation to what is subsumed under them. This realism situates reality precisely in the concepts and not in the merely empirically encountered and thus is the exact opposite of what is usually understood by realism” (Adorno 1973, 247).