Authors: Duhamel & Mény
Summary: The concept of class dates back to the sixth century B.C.E., when the Roman census distinguished between those wealthy enough to equip themselves militarily (the classis) and the rest of the people (infra classem). Later, class came to refer to different economic functions. These two criteria, demographic and functional, became the basis of numerous typologies. Quesnay (1758) distinguished three economic classes: the productive, owning, and sterile classes. Ricardo (1817) identified a different triad: owners, capitalists, and workers. But it was only in Marxist theory, later in the 19th century, that the concept of class attained its full significance. To the two criteria of demographic and functional classes, Marx added a third: the link between ownership and the capitalist mode of production. Marx distinguished between the bourgeoisie, owners of the means of production, and the proletariat, owners only of their own labor power. An important part of Marx's theory is "class consciousness"-each class comes to awareness of itself in opposition to the other. Marx predicted that capitalist society would increasingly be defined by conflict between these two classes, and that ultimately the proletariat would overthrow the bourgeoisie, capitalism would be transformed into socialism, and a classless society would emerge.
Against Marx's "realistic" conception of class as embodying the objective truth about capitalist society, one may oppose a "nominalist" conception (Weber, Pareto). From a Weberian perspective, classes aren't real groups but social categories; individuals within them are likely but not certain to have the same interests. Weber saw many different forces shaping these categories-the division of labor, wealth, ways of life, culture, education, etc. Such a perspective led away from the monolithic concept of class and toward social-professional categories.
The role of classes in history has not followed Marx's predictions. The concept of a "ruling class" has given way to a recognition of many ruling groups. The concept of class, in sum, expresses only a limited part of social reality.