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The Making of Class as Process

by Katherine Dickson on August 15, 2016

This is the third in a series of posts for the Unconventional Wisdom section of the Progress in Political Economy blog, written by Honours students within the Department of Political Economy. It stems from the cohort of Honours students that took the unit coordinated by Adam Morton entitled ECOP4001 Analytic Foundations of Historical Materialism. Here we showcase the work that some of the students produced on that unit in order to reflect on the sorts of debates that undergraduates are currently engaging.


The focus of this blog post is the nature of class relations and agency as theorised within the Marxist tradition. In Democracy Against Capitalism: Renewing Historical Materialism, Ellen Meiksins Wood discusses the two dominant conceptualisations of class; namely class as a social structure and as a process. Initially addressing hierarchical accounts of class, Wood critiques the deterministic and mechanical nature of analysis within orthodox Marxism. Wood’s analysis of E.P. Thompson’s ideas provides an alternative view of class relations that reaffirms the centrality of human agency. Through the emphasis on historical specificity and lived experience, class as ‘process’ overcomes the tendency towards dualistic thinking within Marxism as highlighted by Derek Sayer in The Violence of Abstraction. Despite various flaws within Thompson’s work, his method is the most fruitful in conceptualising the development of class consciousness and for an emancipatory politics.

Structure vs Process

WoodWood firstly engages with orthodox conceptualisations of class as a form of social stratification. Based on the relations of production, class constitutes an objective structural hierarchy. As Gerald Cohen articulates, class relations are not dependent upon class consciousness. Rather, the distinction between objective class relations and subjective class consciousness is emphasised and reified. However, Wood contends that such theorisation is largely ahistorical and neglects the role of human agency in class formation. Structural accounts of class cannot provide substantial explanatory power for the development of class consciousness.

Wood contrasts such structural reasoning with an analysis of Thompson’s notion of class as process. Critiquing hierarchical understandings of class, Thompson argues that class is a socio-historical development. It is only visible as a progressive phenomenon involving human agents over time. While relations of production provide the foundation for the development of class consciousness, they do not necessitate it. Wood asserts that class struggle anticipates class, as it is through the process of struggle that a class is formed and consciousness is developed. In this way, class analysis also remains relevant for an exploration of partially formed classes, or sporadic class action. Critics have subsequently charged Thompson with the conflation of objective and subjective class forms.  However, it is evident that Thompson doesn’t negate the importance of the relations of production or subsume structural analysis within a form of subjectivism. Rather, he refocuses the analysis of class to the lived experiences of individuals as historical agents. In this way, the development of class struggle and consciousness become the focal point of discussion.

Social Being to Class Consciousness

Wood asserts that the relations of production give rise to class ‘situations’; conditions that allow for the development of class consciousness and social action. The process of class thus involves a transformation from social being to class consciousness which is facilitated through ‘mediations’. Within Thompson’s work, the key mediating factor that develops consciousness is ‘experience’, more specifically the shared experience of exploitation of the working class under the relations of production. The concepts of ‘class situations’ and ‘mediations’ within Wood’s analysis remain vague and undefined, which do present issues when attempting to distinguish between social conditions and the saliency of various mediating factors. However, such ambiguity does allow for the application of these ideas in a myriad of contexts and thus constitute a conceptual strength within a theory of historical materialism.

In a similar way, the meaning of ‘experience’ as utilised by Thompson remains opaque. Perry Anderson highlights two varying definitions of experience as articulated by Thompson within The Poverty of Theory. The first pertains to an individual or group’s psychological reaction to social phenomena, while the second expresses experience as the necessary link between social being and consciousness. Thompson also discusses experiential learning from social events as imparting new understandings of the world that gives rise to class consciousness. Anderson highlights that the conceptual fluidity of ‘experience’ is reflective of the linguistic ambiguity of the term in common usage. However, there is no clear method to discriminate between ‘invalid’ and legitimate experience that facilitates class development. While Stuart Hall in his essay ‘In Defence of Theory’ argues that this is not necessarily congruent with ‘false consciousness’, ideological factors do impact upon our perception of real events. As a result, cultural and ideological influences must be considered in an analysis of class consciousness.

‘Experience’ and Class Heterogeneity

ThompsonFeminist scholars, such as Joan Scott, have also charged Thompson with neglecting the importance of class fractures on the basis of race, gender and other social hierarchies. The notion of ‘experience’ suggests that mediations of exploitation act to unite the working class and initiate the development of class consciousness. However, Thompson does not discuss the ways in which exploitation is experienced in different ways and to varying degrees on the basis of identity hierarchies. Wood does not discuss this analytical chasm within Thompson’s work and therefore leaves the question of class cohesion relatively unanswered. However, Thompson’s method and notion of class as process is not necessarily incompatible with a focus on identity politics. The emphasis on the historical nature of class and the importance of human agents within his theorisation may be compatible with an understanding of Marxism through the philosophy of internal relations. As David McNally asserts, class cannot be theoretically divorced from elements of social difference (gender, race, sexuality, etc.) as they are mutually constitutive. Instead of viewing the realities of class heterogeneity as a source of potential conflict, this school of thought focuses on the potentiality of emancipation through an emphasis on their interrelatedness.  Such reasoning is congruent with a theory of class that situates human agency as the central driver of history as Thompson articulates. While Thompson (and subsequently Wood) do neglect a discussion of these issues within their analyses, such omissions may be addressed through the work of Marxist scholars utilising the philosophy of internal relations.


Such theorisation provides an analysis of the ways in which class consciousness is fostered and develops over time. Analysis is not confined to studies of ‘successful’ class action or pure class consciousness. Partial and incomplete forms of consciousness as instances of class development within socio-historical constraints are valorised as relevant for analysis. As Thompson argues in The Making of the English Working Class, ‘… the working people should not be seen only as the lost myriads of eternity.’ This is particularly pertinent in a time where Marxism has lost traction as a political force in the West. Wood’s discussion of class as process furthers her project of reconceiving Marxism in the modern context. Thompson’s conceptualisation re-enforces the centrality of human agency within historical materialism which supports her reading of Marxism as a theory for human emancipation.

Katherine Dickson
Katherine Dickson is an Honours Student in the Department of Political Economy, University of Sydney. She is undertaking a Bachelor of Political, Economic and Social Sciences. Her thesis topic concerns the nature of alienation in International Surrogacy. Her current research interests include feminism, post-colonial studies, internal relations and philosophies of exploitation.

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