Class and Sociology: “The Shadow of Marxism”

"Class and Sociology: 'The Shadow of Marxism'," Commentary, October 1957. (A review of The American Class Structure by Joseph A. Kahl and Social Stratification: A Comparative Analysis of Structure and Process by Bernard Barber.)


Twentieth-Century America is perhaps the most egalitarian society the civilized world has ever seen, yet nowhere has there been so much solemn brooding over “class” as in this place at this time. Doubtless this has something to do with the very fact of equality itself. As the infinitely wise Tocqueville pointed out: “When inequality of conditions is the common law of society, the most marked inequalities do not strike the eye: when everything is nearly on the same level, the slightest are marked enough to hurt it.” But in the case of America, this normal (or should one rather say abnormal?) preoccupation with class distinctions is aggravated by the presence of a large body of sociologists whose sensitivity toward the subject is refined to an extreme. Why this should be so is not entirely clear. Would a sociological study show a positive correlation between degrees of personal envy and a predisposition to a sociological career? Or would it demonstrate that sociologists, constituting one of the newer professions, are thereby exceptionally concerned with all matters of status? These questions are rhetorical, of course, since such a sociological study is most unlikely to be made. In its absence, one must fall back on mere history, which suggests that there was a very intimate connection—often a very personal connection—between the origins of modern sociology and the rise of the various 19th-century movements for equal rights, prison reform, improvement of public health, eradication of juvenile delinquency, and the general renovation of society as a whole in an egalitarian direction. This meliorist and leveling impulse, though by no means the only one working within sociology, has remained dominant. At times, it has been enfeebled to nothing more than an a priori anthropological skepticism toward the institutions of one’s own society; at other times it has gathered critical momentum and generated around itself a full-blown climate of radical dissent. Whatever the case, it has found the subject of “class” so congenial to its temper that it holds on to it with a loving tenacity, fondling and worrying it the way a bulldog does his bone.

Commentary Magazine