Marxist political economy makes the concept of class an organising principle in its analysis. It emphasises that under capitalism, as under previous and less sophisticated modes of production, exploitation of the subordinate by the dominant class is inevitable and part of the definition of a particular mode. Under capitalism, capital exploits labour or, to use different terms, the bourgeoisie exploits the proletariat.
In post-modern and anti-essentialist forms of Marxism, class is taken as an entry point and an essential part of the theory, but unlike other approaches to Marxism, class does not uniquely determine other aspects of the theory. It is overdetermined: thus it is both cause and effect of all the other processes in society. It remains as an entry point because Marxists believe that class exploitation is inherently bad and needs to be overcome in the formation of a different and better, more just society, namely socialism.
Attempts at socialism in the twentieth century do not give me much grounds for optimism that such a society is better than a capitalist one, and may represent a utopian ideal . From the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe to communist China, new forms of exploitation arose under authoritarian rule, freedom was curtailed and material progress was inferior to that in the capitalist West. Eventually these societies either collapsed or, in the case of China, reform gradually transformed them in a capitalist and market-based direction.
It would appear therefore that the costs resulting from attempts at establishing a socialist society are too high and even then, class exploitation is difficult to overcome.
However, that does not negate the usefulness of employing class as an analytical category in economics and political economy, in both its more essentialist and anti-essentialist forms. It can provide a richer analysis of social issues in such fields as for example, industrial policy, which I have looked at in previous posts. The balance of class forces and the political settlement in a society can have a powerful influence on the outcome of attempts to accelerate industrial growth and economic development, as seen in the work of the economist Mushtaq Khan. More specifically in the case of exploitation, attention can be drawn towards the negative effects of capitalist development and promote efforts to ameliorate social injustice. In both these cases, bringing class into the analysis can help us to make better policy and to struggle for improvements in the material aspects of society as the foundation for other aspects of life.
Thus class and class exploitation are revealing in an analysis of economic and social development. Overcoming them is probably an ongoing struggle and may possibly never be fully accomplished, especially in societies where they are a part of its functioning, as in capitalism. As the famous Cambridge economist Joan Robinson put it, the only thing worse than being exploited under capitalism is not being exploited under capitalism. One can admit to and theorize about class and exploitation as an important aspect of studies in political economy without necessarily supporting socialism as such.