Was class in fact being ignored elsewhere to the same extent, with similar consequences? And what kind of legacy of class analysis was available to researchers and political observers elsewhere? Unable to answer these questions myself, I decided to ask others. And that led to the idea of this special issue. There are of course many kinds of class analysis. There are structural analyses that try to document changing stratification arrangements, define the groups that make up the different classes, and show the effect this has on individual political behavior voting, ideology, social movement participation.
There are historical analyses that examine the impact of class formation, class consciousness, or class conflicts on systemic evolution or revolution, and that connect class, power, and politics. There are political analyses that look at how class formation shapes weak or strong states. Cultural analyses, meanwhile, see class relations reproduced through patterns of consumption, or explore the development or not of common sensibilities among people with similar relations to the production process.
Class itself can be understood in different ways: as a category or a mechanism, a gradational hierarchy or a relational interaction. These various possibilities were noted to contributors, who were asked to assess the way class has been thought about in their respective countries, and to discuss the implications of their findings. Together, they give us a picture of the ways eastern Europeans made sense of the shattering economic and social changes they were living through, and tell us a great deal about social science in times of transition.
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The essays, naturally, reveal a great deal of diversity across such a wide range of countries, but they do show striking similarities. First, they all show the troubled relationship with class that social scientists had since the start of the communist period. With the regime prescribing a doctrinaire theory, social scientists wishing to do something other than repeat dogma were forced to stray. Ironically, the stratification paradigm that had emerged in the west to counter Marxist class theory took root as the foundation of sociological research done in the official Marxist states.
It retained the same functionalist assumptions about a non-conflictual social structure, while allowing chiding rebukes concerning ongoing inequality. All the essays here show the prominence of empirical research on class combined with constraints on theoretical reflection. Not discussing class seemed to many as a patriotic obligation. Finally, the essays speak of a rejuvenation of class thinking in the past decade, promoted by a new generation shaped by capitalism rather than state socialism, and trained in the west where class sensibilities and theories are more common.
As for the recent revitalized interest in class, that is discussed in the final section, introducing readers to the thirteen other essays in this collection. Reasons for the decline of class talk after seem at first blush rather self-evident. To put it bluntly, class was the key concept of the toppled nemesis. The term was associated almost exclusively with the departed and discredited old regime, and it connoted in the popular imagination a logic of struggle, conflict, and contradictory interests, which did not fit the mood or expectations of a public anxious to believe that things were soon going to improve for all.
Paradoxically, class appeared to many to be not only the language of the enemy, but a category more relevant for the old system than the new. How could this be, given the higher levels of equality and historic social mobility of state socialism? The answer is that in the old system, there was a particular group that explicitly set itself up at the top.
In state socialist society, power is transparent: the state not only served as the owner of property, setter of pay, and distributor of resources, but said that it did. Social groups seeking more or seeking change directed their appeals and their ire not against each other—none of them had independent power over others—but against the state. As a critical concept, class can only catch on when intellectuals, activists, or politicians promote it. Like nation, it is not a primordial category, obvious from the nature of things.
Inequality, after all, can be explained as natural, functional, and deserved. It is often experienced as just by people who suffer from it, as it is always presented as just by those who benefit from it. But the term can retain its critical edge only when regularly repeated by a cohort of political actors committed to its claim.
Such actors were few and far between in The concept had lost its cachet in the west, as the emergence of identity politics and the decline of trade unions set off a wave of studies about the demise of class in general. It was further compromised in eastern Europe by the appropriation of the term by the state. The upheavals of were inspired by civic and democratic, not class, discourse.
After , few sought to promote one. Instead, there was a conscious attempt to ward off class talk. Liberals, concerned with preempting the labor opposition they feared would arise, proposed a narrative proclaiming a society open to all. Nationalists, of course, reject class cleavages as an assault on necessary unity, and divided society between patriots and enemies.
It was not in the interest of any prominent group to raise the matter of class. On the contrary, most skilled workers felt the unskilled held them back, turned potentially productive plants into places providing superfluous jobs, which was of course in part what the old regime used factories for. This gave skilled workers a temporary common interest with liberals, against the interests of other workers, and gave them no interest in deploying class-based appeals—at least until most of the unskilled were jettisoned from the plants.
All this did not mean that no one mentioned the word itself. And sociologists reluctant and unaccustomed to thinking about class as a relationship, have been quite ready to discuss it as a location in a social hierarchy.
In short, even when class might exist, exploitation did not. The collapse of class analysis thus meant the absence of discussions of exploitation, unequal relationships, even power, in favor of an analysis stressing individual attributes. Of course, the chief aim of the model was not to provide a foundation for research but to serve as a legitimating principle of the new system: differences still existed, but they were temporary, disappearing, and untroublesome.
Plenty of texts appeared claiming just this. For those who sought to do empirical research, though, the model was inadequate from the start. First of all, there was no way to operationalize such a model. Among workers, there were skilled and unskilled, working in heavy or light industry, large firms or small ones. Given the operational weakness of the official paradigm, once sociology was reestablished, it soon avoided class theory.
Thinking of social structure in terms of occupational stratification as opposed to class was a way of acknowledging the existence of social differences and inequalities, while bypassing the trap question of whether exploitation was involved.source url
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In stratification studies, there are different social groups in a given society, and they can be studied individually, on their own, without positing any kind of relationship between them. The danger is that stratification analysis frequently reduces to a functionalist claim: different groups perform different roles and get different rewards for those roles. East European sociologists did not need to wish to go that far, though some certainly did.
Moving from class to stratification did, however, make sociology doable, empirically. Survey research and opinion polls became the chief methodologies.
Universities weak in historical and critical sociology were strong in teaching polling and survey techniques. With little opportunity for large class theorizing, and no publication outlets for reflections on structural conflicts in state socialism, sociologists studied society through a combination of official statistics and individual polling. For the regimes, this empirical turn did not generally pose a problem. It served as a way of gaining information about different groups while leaving social scientists something to work on.
For sociologists, it was not only a way to undertake meaningful empirical research but provided opportunities for subtle criticisms. With its inevitable exposure of inequality, stratification studies always had a chiding aspect about them. Still, there were costs to the embrace of this approach. The regime allowed empirical sociology but not critical sociology. Those who sought to make critical historical claims about class analysis or the class nature of state socialist society were barred from doing so. State and academic authorities banned any grand theorization about class that diverged from the official model.
Some were quite critical of the bargain, insisting that stratification analysis represented an abdication of critical sociology. Besides those just noted, a host of theorists in the west also turned their efforts to the development of an overarching class analysis of state socialist societies. Yet all these efforts shared a curious feature: They focused on identifying a dominant class in state socialism, without paying much attention to whether, and how, class dynamics within the population as a whole, such as position in the labor process, shaped developments in these societies or pointed to possible outcomes.
By the s, legions of left-wing critics had considered Stalinism a betrayal of the principles of Marxism. In the end, there was something terribly hollow about such agitated debates. That was monopolized by the state, and not transferable to individuals or passed on through inheritance. Intellectuals, like workers, were employees of the state and subject to its whims.
Peasants, meanwhile, whether working on collective farms, state farms, or remaining formally private as in Poland, had quota targets to meet and faced a single state purchasing agency, and so were also subordinate to the state. Instead of structural conflicts within society, there existed rather a structural basis for societal unity against the state, which manifested itself in the breadth of the opposition movements that arose once a political opportunity appeared. State socialism was not a society ripped apart by internal class conflicts.
No group had a gripe with any other group, but only with the party. More important, no group had power over any other group. Each group seeking resources could extract them only from the state. When workers went on strike, they ignored management and appealed directly to the state. Given all this, a stratification approach made a lot of sense at the time. It produced important work on the material conditions, values, and beliefs of people in various occupational groups. The point, though, is that it made a good deal of sense at the time. It stopped making much sense with the transition to capitalism.
This was the moment when property ownership started to count, when particular groups in society started exercising domination over others, when outcomes began to be determined more by what one group could extract from another group than what each could extract from the state. This was the moment when conflicts between groups within civil society started to dominate over conflicts between society and the state. This was the moment, in other words, when classes arose.