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Marxist Rejoinders

Somewhat ironically, many of the fiercest critics of the classical Marxist doctrine of class would consider themselves to fall into the Marxist camp. The failure of the proletariat to rise up against and to crush capitalism even as the conditions of its exploitation worsened led some Marxists, especially in Western Europe, to revisit Marx's conception of class struggle. The so-called Frankfurt School of Critical Social Theory renounced the crass economism of classical Marxism in favor of an analysis that emphasized the cultural sources of working-class conservatism, including the mass media, out-group scapegoating (anti-Semitism and other forms of ethnic and racial hatred), and the predominance of so-called technological rationality. Members of the Frankfurt School embraced, alternately, pessimism about the possibility of successful class struggle (as in the work of Max Horkheimer [1895–1973] and Theodor W. Adorno [1903–1969]) or optimism that other marginalized groups, such as racial minorities, students, denizens of Third World nations, women, and environmentalists, might become the bearers of the revolutionary subjectivity of Marx's proletariat (as Herbert Marcuse [1898–1979] asserted). In either instance, traditional Marxian class analysis leading to proletarian revolution was set aside as an unrealistic and unrealizable expectation.

Another school of Marxist thought, drawing upon the rigorous methodological principles of modern economics and the other social sciences, sought to wed so-called rational choice doctrines of economic behavior to a radical worldview. Authors such as Jon Elster (b. 1940) and John Roemer (b. 1938) argue that class should be reinterpreted according to the standards of methodological individualism, so that a class is not greater than the sum of its parts, but a coordinated body of similarly positioned individual agents. Known as "rational choice" or "analytical" Marxism, this approach attempts to strip class of perceived metaphysical accretions—for example, the holism criticized by Sir Karl Popper (1902–1994)—without eliminating it as a workable foundation for a viable theory of economic exploitation.

Still other thinkers within a Marxist vein have set out to restore the "political" dimension to Marx's conception of class struggle. Historians such as Robert Brenner (b. 1943) and political theorists such as Ellen Meiksins Wood (b. 1939) stress the contingency of class relations depending on political context, and thus they foreground local juridical-coercive institutions in understanding the constitution of class identities. This perspective insists on the wholly illusory nature of the supposed separation of the economic and the political under capitalism. Political power shapes class conflict, and thus the state itself is the prime site for class struggle and opposition.

Additional topics

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