Flow of Ideas

Ten Points on Marx, Class and Education

Glenn Rikowski
School of Education, University of Northampton

A paper presented at Marxism and Education: Renewing Dialogues IX Seminar, University of London, Institute of Education, 25th October

Draft: Version of 24th October 2006


Here I take forward ideas first advanced in a paper I produced for the British Sociological Association Education Study Group in 2001 (Rikowski, 2001) and a further elaboration of some of those ideas with Paula Allman and Peter McLaren (in Allman, McLaren and Rikowski, 2005). It is very much a programmatic paper, mapping out work that remains to be done (the second half of the paper) as much as summarising work already completed (in the first half). The style is compressed, aphoristic even, and reflects both the time at my disposal for sustained thought on theoretical and academic issues these days, and the fact that many ideas stand in need of development and to be infused with further background reading.

The main aim of this paper is to work out a specifically Marxist analysis of class and then to relate this to education. This is not as straightforward as it seems as mainstream sociologists and education researchers and theorists mistake ‘social classes’ for status groups. Some Marxists do this too, unfortunately. When Marxists do this the result is a neo-Weberianism box-like apparatus rather than a Marxist analysis of class. What I am after is a dynamic perspective of social class that more adequately reflects life in contemporary capitalism, whilst also critiquing and challenging the social existence of class itself.

(1) Status Groups – Not Class

In mainstream sociology and indeed educational research, theory and writing, when ‘social class’ is referred to it is status groups and allied social stratification that are essentially the focus (as in e.g. Fitz, Davies and Evans, 2006). Social worth, rather than social class is highlighted. In the third volume of Capital (Marx, 1865), Karl Marx made the same mistake, though he knew he had done so. Both the Marx of Capital volume III and mainstream sociologists and education theorists and researchers become ‘box people’: that is, they attempt to force groups of people into pre-ordained categories or boxes, or strata (see Allman, McLaren and Rikowski, 2005), and on this basis predict or explain their behaviour.

(2) Marx, Classes and Sources of income

In the ‘Classes’ section of Capital, Marx attempts to frame social class first of all in terms of ownership. This leads to the ‘three big classes of modern society based upon the capitalist mode of production’ (Marx, 1865, p.885). These are the owners of labour-power (workers, or working class), owners of capital (capitalists) and owners of land. Their sources of income are wages, profit and ground rent. It would seem from this that source of income determines what social class a person belongs to. However, there is a problem of determining sources of income with both consistency and accuracy (Rikowski, 2001, pp.3-4). These three classes, notes Marx, rarely exist in a ‘pure form’ (Marx, 1865, p.885). Furthermore, when classes are defined according to sources of income there is nothing to stop the analyst defining physicians and officials as two distinct classes, notes Marx. He also says that landlords can be sliced into several classes in this way – e.g. owners of forests as opposed to owners of vineyards. This procedure naturalises “class” in a very primitive and basic way. Marx is not only a ‘box person’ theorist on classes here, but the proliferation of classes through the procedure he adopts appears to be unbounded, and therefore becomes socially uninformative and politically weedy.

(3) Social Class and the Social Relations of Production

A similar result is reached when theorists attempt to restructure social class in terms of how different groups relate to capital accumulation. This approach can be viewed in Carchedi (1975). He attempted ‘to chart the ‘new middle class’ in terms of functional roles deriving from capital accumulation’ (Rikowski, 2001, p.7). However, as I have noted previously:

“As these roles are variegated, the previously homogenous ‘middle class’ is fragmented and ‘classes’ proliferate at an alarming rate in Carchedi’s analysis. He pulls back at a later stage in his exposition and attempts to re-aggregate and identify the middle class as a homogenous group (see his definition, p.47). But this just causes unease regarding his forced attempt to re-homogenise the middle class. What if there are many ‘middle classes’?” (Ibid.).

Thus, groups of people can relate to capital accumulation in a myriad of ways. The end result is a huge proliferation of “classes” and the accompanying degeneration of the concept of social class once more.

(4) An Anti-Class Approach to Class

The approach to class adopted here is an “anti-class” approach: a critical analysis grounded on the abolition of social class incorporated within a wider and deeper anti-capitalism and the establishment of communism. In this approach, class is a terrible phenomenon; certainly not something to be romanticised or celebrated. The only working class heroes are those involved in abolishing class. For Marx:

“The condition for the emancipation of the working class is the abolition of all classes … [and] … the working class, in the course of its development, will substitute for the old civil society an association which will exclude classes and their antagonism, and there will be no more political power properly so-called, since political power is precisely the official expression of antagonism in civil society” (1847, p.161).

This free association of workers, hinted at here by Marx is expanded on further by Andrew Kliman (2006). It pertains to where labour is directly social and unmediated by ‘things’ or by money representing ‘things’. As Kliman notes:

“What was crucial to Marx wasn’t which human beings were nominally in control, but whether the process of production had mastery over human beings, or the opposite” (Ibid.).

Thus, Marx had a critical and anti-class perspective on class, too. The following point fleshes out some essential aspects of an anti-class perspective on social class.

(5) Our Social Constitution and Commodity Classes

(a) First, class is the labour-capital relation (Allman. McLaren and Rikowski, 2005), and this relation is not just external to us (though it can and does manifest itself in the social world ‘out there’) but it is also internal to our personhoods (see Rikowski, 2002a and 2003). The labour-capital relation runs through us. This is in line with Marx’s claim (correct in my view) that we are ‘social beings’ and that the ‘individual’ and ‘society’ are not two entirely separate social entities as in mainstream social science (see Smith, 2005). As Marx noted in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844:

“Above all we must avoid postulating “society” again as an abstraction vis-à-vis the individual. The individual is the social being” (Marx, 1844, p.99 – original emphasis).

On this basis, class is at the heart of our social constitution: we exist in, through and as labour and also in, through and as capital. This is the deep rift both within our selves and within the social universe of capital; the social world within which we live (after Postone, 1996). The labour-capital relation is an antagonistic, violent social relation that is part of our souls and our everyday lives.

(b) Second, the other rift – again, both within our selves, our souls, and in capital’s social universe – is that between the two great classes of commodities: the general class and the unique ‘class of one’: labour power. This rift is constituted as expressions of labour as between these two classes of commodity. This also has consequences for the politics of education (as elaborated in Rikowski, 2004).

In Theories of Surplus Value – Volume One, Marx makes a distinction between two classes of commodity:

“The whole world of “commodities” can be divided into two great parts: First, labour power; second, commodities as distinct from labour power itself” (see Marx, 1863, p.167).

Labour power is the unique commodity here, for Marx. Labour power, the capacity to labour, is unique as it is the only commodity in capital’s social universe that can create more value than that through which it is constituted and maintained. Through the transformation of the capacity to labour into actual labour in the capitalist labour process, value and eventually surplus value is generated, which is the first form assumed by capital and is the basis of profit and the maintenance and expansion of capital. As education and training are involved in the social production of the one commodity (and one that is under control of a potentially hostile will) that can generate value, surplus value, capital and profit, then they take on a strategic significance in capitalist society. They are implicated in the production of a commodity, labour power, which is ‘capital’s weakest link’ (as explained further in Rikowski, 2006).

However, the key point for the purposes of our discussion here is that there appears to be a rift within labour on the basis of whether it expresses itself in the social production or reproduction of labour power or on any of the ‘general’ commodities. This seeming antagonism manifests itself in the un/productive labour debate, with the corollary that the labour of teachers (involved in the social production of labour power) and health workers (involved in the maintenance and social reproduction of labour power) is set against that of labour involved in the production of examples of the general class of commodities.

David Harvie has indicated, however, that it the moral and political consequences of this distinction that have dominated: ‘unproductive’ labour is somehow wasteful and bad, and this stance can set groups of workers against each other (see Harvie, 2006). Two points are relevant here. First, these two expressions of labour are not just as between two distinct groups of labourers as a single labourer can get involved in the social production of labour power via its “automatic” moment in the capitalist labour process (see Rikowski, 2006 – section on Education and Labour Power). Secondly, as Harvie (2006) has indicated, the social production of labour power through education and training is not unproductive. Thus, on Harvie’s analysis, this rift within labour is one that is more apparent than real; but a rift which many Marxist theorists have assumed and developed analyses of! Representatives of capital too are always keen to divide workers on this basis!

(6) Real Psychologies: The Psychology of Class

In order to understand what many call “class consciousness”, which in the analysis of social class here takes on a very different complexion, it is important to grasp the necessity for what Marx calls “real psychology”. In the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Marx says:

“We see how the history of industry and the established objective existence of industry are the open book of man’s essential powers, the perceptibly existing human psychology. Hitherto this was not conceived in its connection with man’s essential being, but only in an external relation of utility, because, moving in the realm of estrangement, people could only think of man’s general mode of being – religion or history in its abstract-general character as politics, art, literature, etc. – as the reality of man’s essential powers and man’s species-activity. We have before us the objectified essential powers of man in the form of sensuous, alien, useful objects, in the form of estrangement, displayed in ordinary material industry (which can be conceived either as a part of that general movement, or that movement can be conceived as a particular part of industry, since all human activity hitherto has been labour – that is, industry – activity estranged from itself). A psychology for which this book, the part of history existing in the most perceptible and accessible form, remains a closed book, cannot become a genuine, comprehensive and real science. What indeed are we to think of a science which airily abstracts from this large part of human labour and which fails to feel its own incompleteness, while such a wealth of human endeavour, unfolded before it, means nothing more to it than, perhaps, what can be expressed in one word – “need”, “vulgar need”?” (Marx, 1844, p.104 – with original emphases).

The kind of psychology that is ‘impossible’ for Marx is precisely the mainstream and a-historical psychology that we know and love (or hate, perhaps). This psychology abstracts out general processes of human development and the functioning of the human mind without regard to history and the fact that social being changes according to the march of modes of production. A few psychologists, notably Lucien Séve (1978), have proceeded on the basis of this insight, whilst others, notably John Robinson (1993) have redrawn the split between the individual and society, albeit in a seemingly ‘radical’ fashion, that Marx warned against.

What is required is a real psychology of social class; a psychology that is set to explore the antagonism between labour and capital as it exists within the lives of the social individual in capitalist society. This is a psychology that embarks on the adventure of explicating how the violent struggle between labour and capital impacts on our inner lives. If we are both capital and labour then the implications and consequences of our necessarily schizoid existence need to be analysed, and the ways that we (individually and collectively) attempt both to find solutions to our predicament and to abolish it (the yearning and search for communism).

This psychology can be refined with reference to two further offshoots: a psychology of labour, and a psychology of capital.

(7) The Psychology of Labour

The psychology of labour rests on the tensions and antagonisms within our selves and between workers on the basis of the social production and reproduction of labour power and the labour required for these forms of production. From this perspective, the following productive forms would be relevant:

1. Social production of labour power - and here education and training are crucial

2. Social Reproduction I – reproduction through the wage form

3. Social Reproduction II – domestic labour and the reproduction of the labourers of the future

4. Maintenance of labour power – health and welfare service labour

Again, the tensions and contradictions between these forms of labour are the focus of the psychology of labour. These contradictions are double-edged: they pertain to our production and reproduction of labour power (as labourers) and our selves as labour powers in the process of being socially produced and reproduced. Analysis of this psychology at the point of concrete class struggle can indicate the weaknesses and strengths in the forces of labour in the pertinent battle – which is always a useful thing to know in any struggle. It can also be used as a critique of mainstream industrial psychology.

(8) The Psychology of Capital

The psychology of capital is concerned with the contradictions within capital in terms of its demands on labour and labour power. However, as we are socially constituted as capital (as well as labour) we incorporate these contradictions (both into our personhoods and in social activity). We are literally screwed up by these contradictions. These contradictions flow from the different ways that labour is expressed in capitalist production and in the ways in which labour power is socially produced in contemporary capitalism through education and training processes and related process of the social production of labour power (e.g. work-based learning programmes).

In Rikowski (2002b, pp.187-193) I outlined what I called aspects of labour power (which relate to corresponding aspects of labour); that is, the way labour expresses itself in capitalist production. For labourers in capitalist society, these aspects become part of their personhoods too, part of their social being, as labour power is a force flowing throughout the social individual. These aspects of labour (power) are:

1. The value aspect of labour (power): the quantitative aspect

2. The use-value aspect of labour (power): the qualitative aspect

3. The exchange-value aspect of labour (power): the aspect that determines the equality of labours and labour powers

4. The subjective aspect of labour (power): the will determined aspect

5. The collective aspect of labour (power): the co-operative aspect (involved in workers working together)

6. The concrete aspect of labour (power): the particularities and peculiarities of labour and labour power attributes involved in specific labour processes and in specific work roles

The point is that these become aspects of our personhoods too. Systems of education and training are involved in developing these aspects. To varying degrees and in varying ways, these aspects of labour power are incorporated into our souls in capitalist society. They are expressed (and developed “automatically”) through our labour in the labour process as labour power is converted into actual labour through the self-organisation of our skills, capacities, attitudes and personalities. We incorporate capital into our selves in the process; again, differentially. Labour power, as everything else in capitalist society, takes on a specific social form: human capital, the capital as human; capital as a real social force existing within us. This is explained at much greater length in Rikowski (2002a and 2003).

However, point (5a) should always be kept in view: as labour we try to solve the tensions in our personal and social lives arising on the basis of the incorporation of these capitalised labour power aspects. Secondly, in our struggle against capital, we also struggle against aspects of our selves: we are contradictory social entities. The psychology of capital expresses these contradictions and critiques them, though their destruction depends on the annihilation of capital and the law of value, which is expressed concretely as ‘minimizing costs and maximizing production’ (Kliman, 2006).

(9) Class-In and For-Itself and Class Identification

On the basis of our social constitution, our selves as both capital and labour, a particular rendition of the old class-in-itself and class-for-itself (Marx, 1847, pp.159-160) arises.

Class-for-itself, as Marx notes (Ibid.), is the dormant conception of class, the accumulated but non-active side of social class based on past history and activity. The real social situation and condition of people determines the substance of this form of class. However, in the light of the twist that I have given to social class this now has a double aspect: this past history and activity is riven between our selves as capital and our selves as labour. It is a living contradiction yet a ‘common situation’ (Marx, 1847, p.159) of both labour and capital; but for individuals, and for groups the mixtures will be different. We, as individuals and groups, are constituted as capital and as labour to differing degrees – and this is an empirical matter (the degree of the mix), and where mainstream social science (especially sociology) has a role to play.

Because of this, class-in-itself, the active dimension of class then becomes the extent to which individuals and groups identify with their capital and labour aspects of their selves. This is an active, will-determined element, and precisely why class behaviour and consciousness, both in my own, and in the mainstream sense, cannot be simply ‘read off’ on any basis whatsoever. This allows us to start to explain why someone like Freidrich Engels could become a communist and support the work of Marx: Engels, as both capital and labour, had some choice about which side of himself (and society) he sided with. The fact that most industrialists don’t end up as active communists is based on how class-in-itself has been constituted and class-for-itself characterised here. It is understandable that most rich folk have a class identification which stresses their capital side at the expense of their labour one, but exceptions are possible too.

The key point therefore is class identification. And this may change drastically and radically depending on the situation and a whole bunch of contextual factors. Yet this just highlights the role for empirical study; the sort of empirical study that is both difficult to do and is not likely to attract research funding – especially from the Economic & Social research Council. But what remains clear is that:

“Empirical observation must in each separate instance bring out empirically, and without any mystification and speculation, the connection of the social and political structure with production. The social structure and the state are continually evolving out of the life-process of definite individuals, however, of these individuals, not as they may appear in their own or other people’s imagination, but as they actually are, i.e. as they act, produce materially, and hence as they work under definite material limits, presuppositions and conditions independent of their will” (Marx and Engels, 1846, p.41 – first emphasis mine, second original).

This applies to class identification as much as to anything else; the degrees to which individuals act on their labour or capital aspects in their everyday existence. Understanding this is the real challenge for those interested in “class consciousness”.

(10) The Contradictory Role of Education in Class Struggles

In terms of class formation (which now includes the formation of class within individuals, how the configuration of labour-capital relates to these individuals), education plays a number of key roles. Most important of these is the in the formation of labour power as human capital, the capitalisation of the soul, so to speak. But there are many other roles it can play, for example, in the precise configuration of labour power attributes and how these relate to class identification. Again, biographical analyses, ethnographies and social histories and histories of anti-capitalist struggles and education struggles (e.g. school strikes, teachers’ strikes) would be particularly helpful here.

However, in terms of social class as defined here, education plays a necessarily contradictory role. Capitalist education is implicated in the production of human capital, the form that labour power assumes in capitalist society, but it also produces struggles (Harvie, 2006) as people (as labour) react to it, resist it or subvert it in various ways – pupils, teachers and all others involved in it. Furthermore, possibilities for radical reinterpretations of education are always imminent within and between the social actors. As the class struggle is built into us, is part of our social existence in capitalist society, so are attempts to transcend and go beyond capitalist education, as we kick against the ways in which we are scrambled by capital. This is so especially when it is allied to a wider conception of social revolution backed up by a political movement that is knowing: i.e. conscious of the social constitution of individuals in capitalist society, and the psychologies that this implies.


This is a framework for research that will probably never be done. It is also a framework for understanding what social class is that goes beyond ‘box like’ theories of social stratification which are the obsession of mainstream class theorists. It is a dynamic rendition, and only empirical enquiry (rather than the framework itself) can provide any substantial insights when it is put to use.

The result is two antagonistic classes (which run though and between individuals, and around which groups form), and three psychologies (of class, labour capital) which help us to understand and ground class identification. Capitalist education and training have various roles in both supporting and maintaining this situation, and in undermining and changing it. That is class, and education, for me.

In toto, this paper seeks to convey our social condition and social class as worthy of abolition. It is hopefully unsettling, as we are basically unsettled and scrambled social beings. This needs changing, in my view.


This is an extremely fragmentary text, and a very rough draft. The points are not linked well. Some of the points actually require whole books, for example, on The Psychology of Capital. Rikowski (2002a-b and 2003) fills in some of the gaps, especially on the first five points. There’s also not much on education in this paper. Again: this needs to be addressed.

However, what I have done here is to try to move ideas on social class forward without bothering too much about developing all the aspects necessary. I do intend to expand it, when time permits, but perhaps I shall never do this. Class, tragedy and hope are close friends in the landscape of capital!


Allman, P., McLaren, P. & Rikowski, G. (2005) After the Box People: The Labor-Capital Relation as Class Constitution and Its Consequences for Marxist Educational Theory and Human Resistance, in: P. McLaren (ed.) Capitalists and Conquerors: A Critical Pedagogy Against Empire, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Carchedi, G. (1975) On the economic identification of the new middle class, Economy & Society, Vol.4 No.1, pp.1-69.

Fitz, J., Davies, B. & Evans, J. (2006) Education Policy and Social Reproduction: Class Inscription and Symbolic Control, London: Routledge.

Harvie, D. (2006) Value Production and Struggle in the Classroom: Teachers within, against and beyond capital, Capital & Class, No.88 (Spring): pp.1-32.

Kliman. A. (2006) Demonstrating an alternative to capitalism, News & Letters, Vol.51 No.4, October-November, p.5. Available online at:

Marx, K. (1844) [1977] Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Marx, K. (1847) [1975] The Poverty of Philosophy, Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Marx, K. (1863) [1975] Theories of Surplus Value – Volume One, London: Lawrence & Wishart.

Marx, K. (1865) [1977] Capital: A critique of political economy – volume III, London: Lawrence & Wishart.

Postone, M. (1996) Time, Labor and Social Domination: A reinterpretation of Marx’s critical theory, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rikowski, G. (2000) That Other Great Class of Commodities: Repositioning Marxist Educational Theory, a paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Annual Conference, Cardiff University, 7-10 September, online at:

Rikowski, G. (2001) After the Manuscript Broke Off: Thoughts on Marx, Social Class and Education, a paper prepared for the British Sociological Association Study Group Meeting, King’s College London, 23rd June. Available online at:

Rikowski. G. (2002a) Education, Capital and the Transhuman, in: D. Hill, P. McLaren, M. Cole & G. Rikowski (Eds.) Marxism Against Postmodernism in Educational Theory, Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

Rikowski, G. (2002b) Fuel for the Living Fire: Labour-Power! in: A. Dinerstein & M. Neary (Eds.) The Labour Debate: An Investigation into the Theory and Reality of Capitalist Work, Aldershot: Ashgate.

Rikowski, G. (2003) Alien Life: Marx and the Future of the Human, Historical Materialism: Research in Critical Marxist Theory, Vol.11 No.2, pp.121-164.

Rikowski, G. (2004) Marx and the Education of the Future, Policy Futures in Education, Vol.2 Nos. 3 & 4, pp.565-577, available online at:

Rikowski, G. (2006) Education and the Politics of Human Resistance, Information for Social Change, Issue No.23 (summer), available online at:

Robinson, J. (1993) The Individual and Society: A Marxist Approach to Human Psychology, London: Index Academic Books.

Séve, L. (1978) Man in Marxist Theory and the Psychology of Personality, Hassocks: The Harvester Press.

Smith, C. (2005) Karl Marx and the Future of the Human, Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

Glenn Rikowski, London, 24th October 2006.
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