Classless society is a term used by political and social theorists in a variety of contexts. It is used to describe societies in which classes have never developed, such as tribal and nomadic communities in which all the members have similar economic roles. It is also used to describe an ideal state in which every member of society has an equal status. “Classless society” can refer to a hierarchical society in which social classes have been deliberately abolished, such as a commune or an Israeli kibbutz. “Classless society” is an important term in Marxist theory, where it refers to the ultimate ideal condition of social organization, expected to occur when true communism is achieved. According to Marxist theory, social classes emerged with the development of agriculture and the production of surplus food, a circumstance which allowed one group to become dominant over the rest of society. In a society where every worker owns the means of production, Marx theorized that the state would no longer be necessary and would gradually disappear.
Some social theorists argue that modern democratic society is a “classless society” because social and economic mobility have obliterated the dominance of a single group of people.
A social class is, basically, a group of people that have similar social status. The relative importance and definition of membership in a particular class differs greatly over time and between societies, particularly in societies having a legal differentiation of groups of people by birth or occupation.
Many scholars view societies as stratifying into a hierarchical system of “socioeconomic classes” based on economic status, wealth, or income. From ancient history until the development of trade and industry, many historians and economists used a bi-partite model to view societies as consisting of an upper class of the immensely wealthy and powerful, and a lower class of the poor and weak. The development of urbanization and trade, and later of industrialization, resulted in the emergence of an increasingly powerful economic middle class of artisans, merchants, manufacturers, and highly paid professionals.
Karl Marx and his collaborator Friedrich Engels adopted Hegel’s explanation of history as a dialectical process of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. Instead of Hegel’s theory that historical conflict occurred among nation-states constantly jockeying for power, Marx and Engels proposed that the conflict was between socio-economic classes. Their theories appeared to explain the social and political disorders arising from the Industrial Revolution, and to offer a satisfactory solution in which the establishment of a truly communist society would give everyone equal status. The state would then wither away and man at last become “fully human” in a classless society.
The theory of Marx and Engels was developed in response to the unbridled capitalism of laissez-faire, but failed to address the problem of the control of political power. Marx's fellow revolutionary the Russian anarchist M.A. Bakunin observed, "[The revolutionaries would vivisect society in the name of dogmas] and destroy the present order, only to erect their own rigid dictatorship among its ruins.”
According to Marxist theory, tribal society, primitive communism, was classless, because everyone was equally poor and carried out the same work. The transition to agriculture created the possibility of producing a surplus product, more than was necessary to satisfy an individual’s immediate needs. The development of productive forces made possible the development of a class society, because the surplus product could be used to nourish a ruling class which did not participate in production. Surplus product was stored until a time of need in special repositories, which then had to be guarded. During times of need, the consumption of the stored products had to be regulated so that they were not all immediately consumed. Those in control of distributing the stored food had the power to deny food to certain individuals, and therefore had to be more powerful than the masses of the population. Thus the ruling class was born. Marx termed this “the first negation,” the negation of the classless society. Three societies followed the classless tribal society: ancient society, in which the major class distinction was between master and slave; feudal society, in which lord and serf were opponents in a class war; and bourgeois society, or capitalism, in which the class division existed between factory owner and worker. According to Marx, there would be a classless society once again at the end of development, which would negate class society.
This ideal classless society would be a co-operative union of free producers, who would be both owners of the means of production and workers. There would be no private ownership of the means of production, which would be the property of the whole society. All decisions would be made in a grassroots democratic system, and the state as an instrument of class rule become superfluous and die off. Following the proletarian revolution the economic system would no longer be plagued by rivalry and economic crises, and production would greatly increase. Agriculture would be organized and practiced on larger farms. It would be possible to eliminate all shortages, so that the reasonable needs of all people could be satisfied. The worker would no longer be alienated from the products of his labor; work would become an expression of an individual's personality.
When sociologists speak of "class" they usually mean economically based classes in modern or near pre-modern society. Modern usage of the word "class" outside of Marxism generally considers only the relative wealth of individuals or social groups, and not the ownership of the means of production.
The sociologist Max Weber formulated a three-component theory of stratification, with social, status and party classes (or politics) as conceptually distinct elements. Social class is based on an individual’s economic relationship to the market, including those of owner, renter, employee, or financier. A status class or group is differentiated by non-economic qualities such as prestige, honor, religion, and intelligence. Party classes are determined by affiliations in the political domain. All three of these dimensions have consequences for what Weber called "life chances," or possibilities for success as defined by the individual or by society.
The term classlessness has been used to describe several different social phenomena.
Some modern scholars argue that traditional social classes do not exist in modern democratic society. Their argument is based on a definition of “class” which includes specific measures of class identity. Some of these are the demographic and ethnic similarity among members of a class; the extent to which the members of a class share a common cultural orientation; whether the members of a class share distinct, life-defining experiences and a common sentiment about their class status; and whether the members of a class have a common political affiliation. In a modern democratic society in which education is universally available and social mobility is tied to economic success, these criteria could be used to conclude that it is a classless society.
Critics argue that because economic status determines access to education and opportunity, a self-perpetuating upper class does exist even in a democratically mobile society. Perceptions of a dominant social class are strong in democratic nations, such as the United Kingdom, which have a historical aristocracy.
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