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Michael Harrington

Books in Review

An Uneven Study

(Spring 1957)

From The New International, Vol. XXIII No. 2, Spring 1957, pp. 127–129.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The American Class Structure
by Joseph A. Kahl
Rinehart, $4.50

The question of class structure confronts one with a crucial paradox of the Marxist movement. The Marxists are, of course, fundamentally concerned with the analysis of social classes. And yet, in the hundred or so years of Marxism, little has been produced in the way of empirical, scientific studies of actual class relationships. And this becomes all the more curious when one realizes how much time academic sociologists have given to the subject in the last decade in the United States.

Marx’s own discussion of social classes was fragmentary, largely confined to a few comments at the end of the third volume of Capital. In some of his political writings – on French politics, for instance – he made a detailed analysis of the political relations between classes, yet he never really generalized his insights into a worked-out theory. And since his time, there has been very little done to fill in this tremendous lack. In his Historical Materialism, Bucharin tried to develop a more rounded Marxian view of the question, yet his work was forced to rely upon the insufficient data available to him at the time. And the strange fact remains in force: that the Marxists have hardly made a really scientific contribution to class analysis in over a century.

This is not to deny that there have been many brilliant Marxian discussions of particular situations, even of historical tendencies of classes in a variety of societies. Yet, the definitions, the basic method, remain unclarified. Ultimately, almost everyone will agree that the skeletal definition of the social class in terms of how individuals stand in relation to the means of production requires considerable amendment before it can become a really useful analytic tool, and this is often done on an ad hoc basis, but rarely in a consistent, theoretical manner. Or, to cite another familiar example, Marxists will regularly make a sharp distinction between objective and subjective social classes, between class and class consciousness. It is widely recognized that there is no one-to-one correspondence between the two. And still, there is no developed study of the inter-relationship. You will not even find it (beyond a few generalities) in a book like Lukacs’ Geschichte und Klassenbewustsein which places a tremendous emphasis on the emergence of consciousness from the social situation.

All of this places a Marxist at a disadvantage when he approaches an academic work on the subject. There is no difficulty in making negative criticisms, of pointing out how a particular sociologist does not understand this or that political element in his own book. And yet, the critique must be tempered with a certain humility. For the sociologists are providing us with a wealth of data, they are accomplishing the empirical work which the Marxists have failed to do. And if their empiricism often issues into an inability to integrate their findings into a conception of society in motion, it nevertheless retains a great value. And it should be something of a scandal to the Marxists that they have produced so little in terms of actual, concrete studies.

Joseph Kahl’s The American Class Structure is in many ways a typical book. It is filled with the charts and data which American sociology has been amassing on this subject over a period of a decade or two. Kahl speaks in terms of a real familiarity with the literature of his field. More, he is not prone to the out and out simplification and vulgarization of his opponents that one finds in some of his colleague’s work. And, also typically, he really doesn’t concern himself with the most basic question: of how his data relates to an understanding of American society in motion.

Kahl, for example, makes the following comment on the political situation in 1954:

“We have approached a stalemate and politics has lost the strong ethnic and class flavor it had for a space of one generation. As long as prosperity continues, the other issues are likely to predominate. Only one ethnic group, the Negroes, still feel underprivileged and actively use politics as a weapon for reform.”

Leaving aside the obviously questionable historical generalization (that American politics became class politics only in the 1930’s), the main point is clear enough. It was noted, for instance, by the contributors to the book on the American right edited by Daniel Bell: that in a decade and a half of relative prosperity, “status” considerations have acquired a particular importance, that class consciousness has not, in the recent period, played the role which it did during the depression.

The point is obvious enough and hardly debatable. Having said this, having noted that the situation depends upon prosperity continuing, one’s predictions about the movement of social classes in the immediate future becomes inextricably involved in a judgment of the general direction of American society in the next period. But this is what Kahl, and the other academicians, refuse to do. They are true to their empiricism, and as a result, they limit the usefulness of the facts which they themselves have so painstakingly discovered.

Kahl’s comment on C. Wright Mills is a striking case in point of this phenomenon. He writes of White Collar:

“The book usefully organizes the available data on the shift from the old to the new middle classes, and gives vivid portraits of some of the new types. But its interpretations suffer from Mills’ lack of sympathy for the new white-collar people: he sees them as automatons with false and empty lives. He writes from the disillusion of the thirties; he fails, in my opinion, to catch the spirit of the fifties. However, it must be admitted that we may now be living in a fool’s paradise; if major war or economic collapse should come, the thirties may live again.” (my emphasis)

But this comment indicates, to say the least, a disturbing procedure. An enormous variable is left indeterminant, one so crucial that it includes the possibility that the sociologists are living in a “fool’s paradise.” If that is the case, if a basic change in the economic conditions could vitiate all of the discussion on social classes today, then, if the writer is going to make full use of his material, it is crucial for him to have some view on the probabilities of basic change. Mills does. The fact that he integrates his empirical study into an overall conception of American capitalism is what differentiates him from almost all of the sociologists. And Kahl can, in a footnote, consider the possibility that his whole study may be a description, not of the American class structure, but of a momentary configuration of social classes under certain conditions. This places a real limit upon the value of his work.

But again, there is a very real value in this study and in others like it. Although there is a fundamental failure of method, there is an abundance of solid empirical material. Here, for example, is recorded in precise statistics the disappearance of the entrepreneur, the growth of the huge corporate bureaucracy. As a result of centering on this phenomenon, Kahl places a great emphasis on the importance of education, and he brings forth some very interesting data on the class factors involved in a college degree. But again, he does not project his findings. Currently, young engineers are being taken into the corporate bureaucracy at very high starting salaries. But at the same time, the opportunity for advancement, the ceiling, is closing in. The young engineer may begin at five or six thousand, yet he will find himself in the very frustrating situation of being condemned to a very slow progress from that point and he may early encounter the fact that he is not going anyplace. This places the brute fact that there are more college degrees in a certain perspective: it indicates a concomitant devaluation of the degree itself. In terms of class consciousness, such a pattern may well have a very important effect. In some cases, it has already led to the formation of crypto-unions in the field (crypto because of an unwillingness on the part of the trained white-collar worker to consider himself as part of the labor movement), in other cases, to unionism itself.

Thus, one has an ambiguous attitude toward a study like The American Class Structure. The Marxist cannot help but welcome such a book in so far as it provides real empirical material for the analysis of social classes. And at the same time, this work, and the many like it, suffers from the lack of a basic theoretical orientation. It is flawed by its own empiricism. The challenge remains: for the Marxists to produce studies which are as scientifically grounded and which combine the wealth of factual information integrated with the necessary conception of social dynamics.

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