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The Big Question: Can there ever be a classless society?

Updated Wednesday, 1st December 2004

Last week's Big Question studied the formative years of Karl Marx. It was the years that saw Marx in Paris (1843 to 1845) that he began to develop his ideas on what would become the cornerstone of his philosophy - class struggle. But does his theory still hold, or have we moved on? The Big Question: Could there ever be a classless society?

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A classless society was the dream of John Major Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: BBC

Last week's Big Question studied the formative years of Karl Marx. It was the years that saw Marx in Paris (1843 to 1845) that he began to develop his ideas on what would become the cornerstone of his philosophy - class struggle. But does his theory still hold, or have we moved on? The Big Question: Could there ever be a classless society?

To explore this week's Big Question, Emma hears from philosopher, Jonathan Rée, who describes Marx's vision of a classless society.

"The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle" wrote Karl Marx in the Communist Manifesto. And, in a capitalist society, he said, class struggle is sharper and simpler than ever - a struggle between two classes: the bourgeoisie - who earn all or most of their income from their ownership of various means of production, and the proletariat - who earn all or most of their income working for a wage.

Tariq Ali Historian and former leader of the International Marxist Group, Tariq Ali, points out that the notions of revolution and a more egalitarian society did not start with Marx. In 73BC, Spartacus, a Roman slave, led thousands of other slaves in revolt. In 17th Century England, the Levellers, described by Tariq Ali as the left-wing of the English Revolution, called for social and class equality. "Why should he that is the lowest not be equal with that who is the highest?" demanded one of their leaders, Colonel Thomas Rainborough. A century or so later, the French Revolution saw the people of France rise up against the aristocracy, demanding equality.

But the 1917 Russian Revolution was the first to be inspired by Marx's idea of class struggle. "Workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains!" These words from the Communist Manifesto became the motto of the Russian revolutionaries.

"All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others", wrote the British author, George Orwell in his novel Animal Farm, a satirical take on the Russian Revolution. Its message is simple - despite all intentions of forming an egalitarian society, in the end, power corrupts.

Could a classless society work in practice?

Muki Tzur is an oral historian who lives in the Kibbutz Ein Gev in Israel. He tells The Big Question how the kibbutz movement came about at the beginning of the twentieth century with the stated aims of "self-labour, equality and cooperation in production, consumption and education." Muki Tzur says life in the kibbutz is not easy, but he still believes in the original ideology (inspired by Karl Marx) "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs."

Emma in Tanzania In 1967, the President of Tanzania, Julius Nyerere, introduced a system intended to blend socialism with traditional tribal government. He called it "Ujamaa" - Swahili for familyhood, and the principles were equality of opportunity and self-help. Today, Tanzania is no longer a socialist country, but there are still over 8000 Ujamaas. Emma visits a village near Dar-es-Salaam where local leaders tell her they see no class divisions. But, they grant, absolute equality is impossible to achieve.

So is the very idea of classlessness against human nature?

Oliver Curry, an evolutionary theorist at the London School of Economics says he believes a society without distinct socio-economic classes - working class, middle class and upper class - is clearly possible. But that does not guarantee absolute equality, he says, humans are like all other social animals, they compete for status and are naturally hierarchical. And half the human population is more competitive than the other, "One half can turn pretty much everything into a competition." That half? The male sex.

This edition of The Big Question was first broadcast on 28th August 2004

 

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