It was a time when a glade in in the somber forest of capitalism became visible, opened up by the Vietnamese and other anti-colonial movements in the South and by the anti-colonial war movement in the North, by African-American rebellion and the Civil Rights Movement, by the French quasi-revolution in May 1968, the Hot Autumn in Italy in 1969, by the Unidad Popular in Chile, the breakout of feminism. This was the time of insurgent Marxism. Class analysis became a central part of it, searching for the social forces capable of carrying the world through the glade, beyond capitalism. Class cartography was developed in a number of countries. In Europe, the most elaborate efforts were made in West Germany, by a Marxist collective calling themselves Projekt Klassenanalyse. Neo-Marxist class theory was first developed by the Greek-French political scientist Nicos Poulantzas, from the Althusserian milieu of novel Marxist theorizing, whose Pouvoir politique et classes sociales appeared during the May days in Paris.

This was the time when Erik Olin Wright, in his own words “fell into Marxism,” “choosing to stay” after his revolutionary chess film as a Harvard undergraduate.1 During his years as a graduate student of sociology at Berkeley in the 1970s he worked out the book, Class, Crisis, and the State (1978), which soon became the landmark of Marxist class analysis of the period. Ever since then, in contemporary Marxist class theory Wright’s works have towered over the field, progressing through explicitly auto-critical revisions of his basically consistent line.2

His major theoretical contribution was his analyses of the multidimensionality of class, through concepts of “contradictory class locations” and of different class “assets,” property, authority, skills. It emerged as a solution to the “boundary problem” in Marxist class theory of the time, where to draw the line between the working class and other classes or strata of employees. There was a field of competing definitions, between a broad one basically including almost all employees of capital, and a narrow one of manual workers in material production. Characteristically, Wright did not see this as an either-or problem to be decided by fiat, supported by one Marx quotation or the other, but as an empirical ambiguity to be sorted out analytically. He distinguished positions with different amounts of control of the production process and of the labor of others.3

He then came to recognize problems with his first version, with the imprecise contradictoriness of the class locations and with its central focus on domination, rather than exploitation.4 The outcome was a three-dimensional conceptualization of class in terms of “assets,” means of production and their ownership or not, amounts of “organizational assets” (organizational authority), and of skills/credentials assets.5

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