The Marxist Transformation
Without doubt, the most famous promulgator of the idea of class in the modern world was also its most profound critic: Karl Marx (1818–1883). Marx treated class distinction as a universal characteristic of human history from the earliest times of social organization until his own day. For Marx, classes were economic groups constituted by differential access to the means of production—that is, the technologies and natural resources necessary for human beings to reproduce their physical existence. In every social formation, there were two essential and contending classes: a working class, which used, but did not directly own or control, the means of production; and an appropriating class, which lived directly or indirectly from the labor of workers. In different economic systems, the type and nature of technology, and of the social relationships employed in organizing labor and maintaining domination over it, might vary considerably. Hence, tribal societies met the physical and extraphysical needs of their members differently than did subsequent ancient slave or feudal systems. But the fundamental clash of interests between workers and appropriators was a permanent feature of history up to the present day.
In previous social systems, Marx held, the struggle between the classes had wound up with the replacement of one exploitative mode of production (the material and social elements of the economy) with another, culminating in capitalism. On the one hand, capitalism, with its veneer of freedom and equality, produced the most intense exploitation of the worker ever achieved. Yet, on the other hand, just because the condition of the capitalist working class, termed the proletariat, was so degraded, Marx believed that it formed a "universal class," capable of releasing and realizing all of the untapped potential of a truly liberated humanity. For this reason, Marx held that the proletariat, once it became conscious of its own circumstances and the source of its immiseration, would revolt against its capitalist oppressors and would generate a qualitatively different kind of society. The future society, which Marx called communism, would be classless, since the proletariat, as the most completely exploited class in history, would have no remaining object to exploit. Communism would see the end of human history as a dynamic series of class struggles and would instead herald a new beginning of history in which each and every individual as a full human being would have the opportunity to pursue and attain his or her freely chosen needs.