In page 40 of this book I read the following:

Scholars of all persuasions now recognize that private ownership of productive resources is the basis of the existence of social classes.

This view of social classes is clearly coincident with that of Marxism (with which I think the author of the book is quite sympathetic), but I am not so confident the consensus (if any) is so broad. Yet, at least from economics (my field), the only school of thought with some serious comment on this (because it integrates in its mechanics and analysis) is (again) Marxism. I have not come across any other such analysis of the origin of social classes in economics.

Therefore, I am interested in what political theory can say about this. Can you guide me a bit through this? Is there a core of fairly widespread (not fringe) theory which argues for another factor as the origin of social classes? Some counterexamples might be enough.

  • 2
    It's true only if you use a circular definition of "social class" as primarily or entirely determined by wealth. But in the current (or recent, say from 1900 on) western world, there are many examples where having large amounts of "new money" doesn't guarantee entry into "old money" social classes. Or at the other end of the financial scale, poor urbanites are generally very distinct from poor rural people.
    – jamesqf
    Aug 16, 2017 at 5:35
  • 1
    For a popular culture example, anyone remember the "Beverly Hillbillies" TV show? en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Beverly_Hillbillies Jed Clampett might well have a lot more money than his old money Beverly Hills neighbors, but he & his family are of a much different social class - and both were of a different social class than the bulk of the audience.
    – jamesqf
    Aug 16, 2017 at 17:56

3 Answers 3


Is there a core of fairly widespread (not fringe) theory which argues for another factor as the origin of social classes?

Oh goodness yes!

Divine Will

During the later ages of classical theory, social classes were often thought to be divinely ordained. Each person was born into a certain position in life according to God's will. This view was shared by many different bodies of theories at the time.

For primary texts, you might consider Epictetus (Discourses and Fragments). Other early Christian writers share this view, but his works tend to be short and fairly easy to read.

Universal Reason

That early Christian theory was largely built on the works of Greek philosophers. According to the Socratic school, social classes were embodiments of our reasoning abilities. Plato divided the soul of humanity into three parts: reason, spirit, and desire. Each part corresponds to a social class.

For example, rulers in Plato's republic were required to be philosophers (capable of abstract analytical thought and capable of discerning what is true). They embody the "reason" part of the soul. On the other hand, workers embody the "desire" part - they want many things and will impress their wants on society.

If you want a primary text, this is explicitly articulated in Plato's Republic. There are elements of it present in Socrates, Aristotle, and related writers. For a summary this may be a good start.


Many liberal philosophers (especially anyone in the vaguely Kantian realm) identified two social classes based on their degree of independence. Civil society is the class that is driven by dependence: people who work in order to fulfill their own needs.

A good ruling class is independent of these needs (they don't have to work in order to fulfill their needs). This allows them to be objective utility maximizers: since they don't have any personal interests that are influenced by their political decisions, they are free to make political decisions that are in the best interest of society.

Further reading: There are no good references or easily-read works by Kant. Sorry.


In the 19th century we saw the rise of social darwinism. Social darwinists believed that notions from evolutionary theory could be applied to human society. One idea was that social progress was an indicator of how well adapted a person (or family, culture, etc.) was to their environment. Members of wealthy classes were more fit; members of the working class were less fit. The strata naturally developed as an equilibrium between competing social interests.

For more info, read the works of Herbert Spencer.


A common thread in anarchism is that social imbalance (including class) is a product of the state. A direct example is that states create prisons to administer punishments for breaking the law, which creates a criminal class. A less direct example is that laws outlining property rights require people to work in order to "earn" a place to live, food, etc. This creates an impoverished social class.

This thought continues abstractly in much of the post-structural theorists. Foucalt, for example, focuses on power relationships which are abstractions of this same thing. In this sense, we can see the state-based power relationship in society all around us.

Further reading: Political Justice (Godwin).

  • 2
    Sidenote: These are works from normative political theory. This is not the same thing as empirical political science. Aug 15, 2017 at 15:29
  • Thanks, but I get the impression that most of these theories are not seriously regarded by political theorist nowadays. Is that correct? If so, which would be a more direct competitor to the Marxian perspective among current scholars?
    – luchonacho
    Aug 16, 2017 at 6:14
  • @luchonacho as you highlighted the origin of social class in your question then it seems reasonable to focus on the historical political theories that originated social class. If you meant why social class still exists then that is a different question.
    – Alex
    Aug 16, 2017 at 9:07
  • 1
    @luchonacho - Are you asking for normative or empirical theory? These are all normative theory, which is typically what people mean when they ask about "political theory". Empirical theorists don't (usually) take normative theories seriously. On the other hand, if you really wanted scientific explanations for the cause of social classes I'm not sure if political science is the right field. Aug 16, 2017 at 14:25
  • @luchonacho - Related Aug 16, 2017 at 14:27

private ownership of productive resources is the basis of the existence of social classes.

Well, this isn't mainstream Marxism. Marxism posits that social classes are formed by differing relations of production between classes in terms of their control over property. A religious-political caste who extracts corvee and goods collectively from semi-autonomous villages doesn't privately possess productive resources, but collectively possesses them as a class. Similarly in Marxist depictions of feudal property relations, a family lineage possesses the rights to extract social goods from productive properties, rather than the particular title holder of the hour. Private property in productive goods is fairly unique to Slave societies (Greece, Rome) and Capitalism.

Is there a core of fairly widespread (not fringe) theory which argues for another factor as the origin of social classes?

Mostly this is a terminological or theoretical debate about classifying social stratification of power and which social stratifications of power are important. Weber and Bourdieu posit multi variable analyses based on economic wealth, culture and ideas. There is a specious and atheoretical tendency in Anglophone and particularly American research to reduce class as a theoretical category to decile analyses of income earnt. These are obviously useless in pre-modern stratification studies.

Remember that Marx's categories and Marxist categories are designed to satisfying a Hegelian turned empiricist who wanted to weaponise productive wage labourers. Other commentators like Weber or Bourdieu might need to meet German or French research paper output requirements, or solve problems in sociology as a discipline.

Remember that "private property" as a category is also live. Almost nobody requires improvement for usufruct as Locke did.


Scholars of all persuasions now recognize that private ownership of productive resources is the basis of the existence of social classes.

This premise is false. Social classes absolutely exist even where there is no private ownership of productive resources. Here are some counterexamples:

(1) Social classes exist in feudal systems in which all productive resources are owned by the government.

(2) Social classes exist in military in which all productive resources are owned by the government. Indeed, class hierarchy distinctions are a defining feature of military organizations.

(3) Social classes exist in the Roman Catholic hierarchy and Vatican City whose functional members are sworn to poverty, and all wealth is corporately owned by the church entity.

(4) Social classes exist in hunter-gatherer societies that do not have significant private property.

(5) Social classes exist in societies organized as "chiefdoms" which often lack private ownership of productive resources and instead have collectively owned productive resources.

(6) Social classes exist in every Communist regime that has ever been, with a first order distinction between party members and people who are not party members, and further distinctions on up the line.

History and sociology tells us that social classes predominantly arise from the scale of communities (i.e. how many people are involved in a particular community) and from the division of labor, and not from private ownership of productive resources. To the extent that any political theory says otherwise, it is empirically wrong.

  • I it was my error in not adding the context of the quote, which was a discussion of capitalism.
    – luchonacho
    Aug 16, 2017 at 6:16
  • 2) and 3) seem more fit as examples of "rank" than of social classes.
    – SJuan76
    Aug 17, 2017 at 22:50
  • @SJuan76 Is an intensely hierarchical social organization in which people are divided not only on the job, but socially and in other respects as entitled to physical deference in day to day interactions not one with class divides? Every ethnographic account I've heard of military life points to a strong class divide between officers and enlisted men, sometimes with NCOs and warrant officers awkwardly caught in between. And, historically at least, upper ranks in the RC church were filled by people from aristocratic families with a class distinction existing between them and others.
    – ohwilleke
    Aug 18, 2017 at 0:59
  • @SJuan76 Indeed, there is good reason to think that the origins of social class in countries like England are predominantly from Norman military hierarchies that were transplanted into English society as conquerers. Thus, social class at a military level may be antecedent to economic social classes.
    – ohwilleke
    Aug 18, 2017 at 1:00
  • But, as you explain, what happened in the Catholic church is that people that belonged to the higher social class became bishops/cardinals/popes/abbots. They did not change their social class by being ordained; their rank reflected the social class/stament they belonged to before joining the church. The same happened in many of the armies before the 20th century. And in regard to more modern, merit based armies, there is still the question of the education options available to you on the basis of who are your parents.
    – SJuan76
    Aug 18, 2017 at 7:25

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .