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Unit G322: Section A

TV Drama and Representation

The Marxist Theory Of Social Class1

This highly influential theory of social class was developed by the
German social theorist Karl Marx (1818-83). Marx based his
ideas on industrial capitalism in the nineteenth-century England.

Ownership Of The Means Of Production

For Marx, an individual’s social class was defined by whether or
not she or he owned the means of production. By this Marx
meant factories and land – the key resources necessary for
producing society’s goods, whose ownership brought to their
owners an unearned income in the form of profit.

Bourgeoisie And Proletariat

Marx argued that there were two basic social classes in industrial society: the class of owners
of the means of production (whom he called the bourgeoisie or capitalists) and the class of
non-owners (whom he called the proletariat or working class). The proletariat, since they
owned no means of production, had no alternative means of livelihood, but to work for the
bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie exploited the proletariat, making profits out of them by keeping
wages low and paying them as little as possible instead of giving them the full payment for
their work.

BROWNE, K (1997). Social Stratification, An Introduction To Sociology: Second Edition, Polity
Press: Cambridge, pgs. 15-26.

Unit G322: Section A
TV Drama and Representation

The Ruling Class

The class of owners was also a ruling class, according Marx. For example, because they
owned the means of production, the bourgeoisie could decide where factories should be
located and whether they should be opened or closed down, and they could control the
workforce through hiring and firing. Democratically elected governments could not afford to
ignore the power of the bourgeoisie; otherwise they might face rising unemployment and other
social problems if the bourgeoisie decided not to invest its money.

The Ruling Ideas

The ruling ideas in society – what Marx called the ‘dominant ideology’ – were those of the
owning class, and the major institutions in society reflected these ideas. For example, the
laws protected the owning class rather than the workers; religion acted as the ‘opium of the
people’, persuading the proletariat to accept their position as just and natural (rather than
rebelling against it), by promising future rewards in heaven for putting up with their present
suffering; the bourgeoisie’s ownership of the mass media meant only their ideas were put
forward. In this way, the working class were almost brainwashed into accepting their position.
They failed to recognise they were being exploited and therefore did not rebel against the
bourgeoisie, because they thought their position was ‘natural’ and they could see no
alternative to it. Marx called this lack of awareness by the proletariat of their own interests
false consciousness.

Exploitation, Class
Class Conflict, And Revolution
Marx predicted that the working class would become poorer and poorer and society would
become divided into two major social classes:

• A small, wealthy, and powerful bourgeoisie and

• A large, poverty-stricken proletariat.

The exploitation of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie, Marx believed, would eventually lead to
major conflict between the poverty-stricken proletariat and the bourgeoisie.

The proletariat would struggle against the bourgeoisie through strikes, demonstrations, and
other forms of protest. The proletariat would then develop class-consciousness – an
awareness of their common working-class interests and their exploitation – until eventually
they would make a socialist revolution and overthrow the bourgeoisie.

After the revolution, the proletariat would nationalise the means of
production (which were formally the private property of the bourgeoisie) by
putting them in the hands of the state. The means of production would,
therefore, be collectively owned and run in the interests of everyone, not just
of the bourgeoisie. Capitalism would be destroyed and a new type of
society would be created, which would be without exploitation, without
classes, and without class conflict. This equal, classless society Marx
called Communism.