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New Left Review I/78, March-April 1973

Nicos Poulantzas

On Social Classes

What are social classes in Marxist theory? They are groups of social agents, of men defined principally but not exclusively by their place in the production process, i.e. by their place in the economic sphere. The economic place of the social agents has a principal role in determining social classes. But from that we cannot conclude that this economic place is sufficient to determine social classes. Marxism states that the economic does indeed have the determinant role in a mode of production or a social formation; but the political and the ideological (the superstructure) also have an important role. For whenever Marx, Engels, Lenin and Mao analyse social classes, far from limiting themselves to the economic criteria alone, they make explicit reference to political and ideological criteria. We can thus say that a social class is defined by its place in the ensemble of social practices, i.e. by its place in the ensemble of the division of labour which includes political and ideological relations. This place corresponds to the structural determination of classes, i.e. the manner in which determination by the structure (relations of production, politico-ideological domination/subordination) operates on class practices—for classes have existence only in the class struggle. [1] This text was originally produced at the request of the trade-union federation cfdt (Confederation Française Democratique de Travail). It was circulated in roneoed form by the cfdt-braec Centre (document no. 9) for use by cfdt cadres. It is therefore an attempt at a brief presentation for working-class militants of elements of theoretical analysis applied to the present conjuncture. These elements are drawn from my two works, Political Power and Social Classes and Fascism and Dictatorship. This takes the form of the effect of the structure on the social division of labour. But it should be pointed out here that this determination of classes, which has existence only in the class struggle, must be clearly distinguished from class position in the conjuncture. In stressing the importance of political and ideological relations in the determination of classes and the fact that social classes have existence only in the class struggle, we should not be led into the ‘voluntarist’ error of reducing class determination to class position. From that error flow extremely important political consequences, which will be mentioned in the sections dealing with technicians, engineers and the labour aristocracy. Yet the economic criterion remains determinant. But how are we to understand the terms ‘economic’ and ‘economic criterion’ in the Marxist conception?

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