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The Renewal Of Class

For the first millennium and more of European history, the term class was not invoked in order to describe the distinctions between and identities of social groups. Rather, class was invoked through what we might call "status language," such as gradus in Latin, état in French, Stand in German, and "orders" or "estates" in English. At the end of the eighteenth century, however, a notable linguistic shift that renewed the nomenclature of class appeared in most major European languages. This change seems to have accompanied the transformations wrought by the industrial revolution and the rise of political economy: class conveyed an essential economic overtone that was not fully captured by the status language of earlier times. The work of authors such as Thomas Malthus (1766–1834) and David Ricardo (1772–1823) did much to disseminate class discourse, and especially phrases such as "the laboring classes" and "the working class."

The nineteenth century was the heyday of discussions about class in this updated economic sense. Class divisions were upheld by classical political economy on the grounds that the division of labor and the competition implied therein were necessary for the efficient use of productive resources. Critics of capitalism, whether communitarians such as Claude-Henri de Rouvroy, comte de Saint-Simon (1760–1825) or utopians such as Charles Fourier (1772–1837) or anarchists such as Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809–1865), remained convinced that the sources of exploitation were not inherent in class divisions per se so much as in unequal distribution of property or wages or the material benefits of work. Differentiation in the contributions made by laborers thus did not excuse their subordination in economic, political, or social standing.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Chimaeras to ClusterClass - Early Histories, The Renewal Of Class, The Marxist Transformation, The Weberian Reply, Marxist Rejoinders