Social classes are the center of Engels and Marx's conception of history. Social classes are economic and, thus, founded on a material base. But they are much more than the bare technology of economic production. Classes are defined by a crucial kind of social relationship that ties together the material, ideological, and political sides of society. This is property: the legal right, enforced by the state, over some material good. Every major type of society has not only its distinctive form of eco-
nomic production, but also its distinctive form of property and, hence, of social classes. Engels and Marx only sketched out what these types of society and, therefore, types of class system might be; these should not be taken as absolutely fixed stages, but as illustrations of class systems. Thus, ancient societies of the Mediterranean world ( Greece, Rome) based their production on property in slaves. Hence the major social classes were the patricians -- the class of slave owners; the slaves themselves -- the major producers in that society; and an intermediate class, the plebians -- defined as those who neither owned slaves nor were slaves. We can see already that the scheme is not a simplistic one. The slaves sometimes rose in revolt, but the major form of class conflict in ancient society was that between the slave owners and the plebians, the intermediate class. These three-sided conflicts, as we will see, are extremely common in world history.
Similarly, "feudal" society ( Engels and Marx's appellation for the agrarian states of the European Middle Ages) is based on productive property, consisting of the land with its laborers legally bound to it. Hence the main classes were the landowning aristocracy, the serfs who were attached to the land, and finally an intermediate class of urban artisans and merchants, with their further subdivisions into guild masters, journeymen, apprentices, and so on. Again there is the possibility of subgradations of property divisions and, thus, of multiple class conflicts. Finally in capitalist society -- which is the only society that Engels and Marx knew well -- the major form of property is industrial capital. Hence, the major classes and class divisions are between the capitalists -- who own the means of production -- and the proletariat or workers -- who own no property of their own and are forced to sell their labor to stay alive.
Classes are the major actors on the historical stage. It is the classes that fight economic and political struggles, make alliances, and produce historical change. Each class has its own culture, its own outlook. Hence, the ideas and beliefs of each historical era and each sector of society are determined by its lineup of classes. It should be stressed that Engels and Marx do not present us with a mechanical conception of classes flowing from each mode of production. In their concrete historical and
political writings -- for example, on the peasant wars in Germany or the revolutions in France -- they discern quite a few important class divisions. Thus, the midnineteenth-century upper classes included not only the owners of industrial capital, but also the financiers and the landlord class: and these three segments of bourgeois society may often be wrapped in political struggle with each other. There is also an intermediate lower-middle class of small tradespeople, shopkeepers, small manufacturers, and artisans. These, too, are an independent cultural milieu and can be political actors in their own right; Marx and Engels often refer to "petit bourgeois radicals" coming out of this group. But such classes are not fixed forever; as the cycles of capitalist economy produced more and more industrial concentration, Marx and Engels expected the petit bourgeois would lose their small-scale property and sink into the ranks of the proletariat.
All these classes are clearly enough defined by the relationship to some type of property. But there are other classes whose base is more mysterious in the Marx Engels scheme. They nevertheless can play an important political and cultural role. For instance, there is the lumpenproletariat: beggars, thieves, itinerant workers, and entertainers as well as bourgeois outcasts, gamblers, roués, prostitutes, what in general was then called "la bohème." Marx described this group as the shock troops of the counterrevolution in France between 1848 and 1851; earlier Engels had described armies of vagabonds playing a duplicitous role, coming and going on both sides in the German peasant wars at the time of the Reformation. The lumpenproletariat class -- the structural outcasts of society -- derives neither from society's economic base nor from its property owners; nevertheless it is the floating class par excellence, capable of being bought off by either side. It is these structural side forces that make class conflict complicated. Another example would be intellectuals, who usually cater to the whims of their wealthy patrons but who set themselves up as independent and even revolutionary when a truly revolutionary class appears in the economic structure of society.
In the higher classes, too, there are structural groups other than the property-owning ones. Marx mentions especially the
army and government offcials: what might be called predatory classes living off the superstructure. These classes would later play an important role in neo-Marxist theories of revolution such as those of Barrington Moore, Jr., and Theda Skocpol. Engels found these kinds of political divisions in the upper classes of feudal society as well; he pointed out that the German nobility of the 1500s was sharply split between the large princes, the upper clergy (the Catholic Church was a wealthy and privileged property owner of the time), and the smaller knights. The wars of the Reformation involved not only an uprising of peasants (with an input from armies of beggars) as well as an urban bourgeoisie (for whom Martin Luther was the spokesperson), but also those different sectors of the nobility fighting among themselves over the property arrangements of society.
Engels and Marx did not invent the concept of social classes; it was part of the common terminology of their European ancestors. What they did contribute was to begin a theory of classes, to show their causes and consequences. Their analysis is stronger on the side of consequences: they showed how any political struggle could be analyzed into the conflicts and alliances among social classes pursuing different economic interests. They also proposed a general scheme of the causes of social classes, that is, the conditions under which they arise. This part of their theory was merely suggested and not extensively worked out. In general we see that the type of property system of every era creates certain major class divisions. But we see that there are numerous auxiliary classes; the conditions that produce them and that turn their interests in particular directions in class struggles have remained topics to be developed in the tradition of conflict sociology after Engels and Marx.