Niebuhr No. 3: Classes and Social Revolution

Moral Man and Immoral Society is such a rich and dense book that a series of blogs on its contents could go on for weeks and weeks. [1] The book is complex and defies a short summary. The style of the writer is such that it can be difficult to discern the side of many important issues upon which the author comes down. As mentioned earlier, the book is also early and takes positions from which the later Niebuhr distances himself. It was in rereading this book several years ago that I decided to begin studying and thinking about political theology/philosophy once again. While I do not find myself in sympathy with many of Niebuhr’s positions, the book forces one to think clearly about his ideas whether right or wrong.

Ethical Attitudes of the Social Classes

It goes without saying that the economic location of human beings influences their views on social and political issues. For the Marxist, however. economics is determinative of the social, economic, and political views of members of society. The early Niebuhr more or less accepted the Marxist position concerning the definitive role of economics and class conflict in human society. As a result, he holds that social conflict cannot be avoided.

Just as nations act hypocritically under the influence of self-interest, so do social classes, and especially the privileged classes’ ethical attitudes are colored by self-deception and hypocrisy, in which they elevate their particular class’s interests to the status of general interests and universal ideals. All classes mobilize their intelligence in order to defend the social inequalities that favor them, when in fact the inequality is too great to have any justification. [2]

Before going further, it is important to unpack and analyze Marx and his views of society and social change. In its most generic definition, the word “class” simply means group. A class of numbers is a group of numbers. A class of fish is a group of fish having in common certain characteristics. A class of people is a group of people that are identifiable because of distinguishing characteristics. In the Middle Ages, society was divided by rank and an order developed that we call “feudalism”. In that system, wealth and power flowed with the ownership of land and military achievement. With the industrial revolution, the feudal order deteriorated. In its place, a new kind of social order developed—a social order in which economic achievement was much more important and status was determined by the control of a much larger range of economic assets than merely land. In addition, the role of the military was changed from the province of the nobility to a service profession within the bourgeoisie.

A Problem with Class Distinctions

Marx saw society as divided into two basic groups: the bourgeoisie, which is in control of the elements of production, and the proletariat which owns no property and which is at the mercy of the bourgeoisie. Within the bourgeoise, there are the owners themselves and those, such as lawyers, etc. in the professional classes of bourgeoisie society. Within the proletariat, Marx distinguishes between the working person and those who might be called the “lower middle class” who have positions of responsibility but remain proletarian. This would include, for example, foremen in an industrial plant. According to Niebuhr, one problem with achieving the social revolution that the Marxist desired is the inability to gain traction among that second group of people. This was true in the 19th, 20th, and now 21st centuries.

Marx’s simplistic distinction is not without its problems. For example, the bourgeoisie is complex. It includes those who actually own the means of production, the professional classes such as doctors and lawyers, the intellectual classes such as college professors and government officials. Among the free nations today, there service industries exist of the size and scope of which would have been unthinkable to Marx. The industries that are the largest source of jobs and growth in the Western free market economies, and include huge companies in the computer and related service industries did not even exist when Marx wrote.

In today’s post-industrial economy, the class system is infinitely more complex than anything that Marx anticipated. While there exists an economic class that owns the means of production, and a large percentage of the ownership of economic units is lodged in a small percentage of people, a large percentage of people through investments, retirement plans, ESOP’s and other vehicles have an ownership stake in our society. In many companies, long time employees can definitely reach the status of upper middle class based upon some of these programs. I have an acquaintance who is a multi-millionaire based upon stock in a high-tech company he received as a relatively low-level salesman. In addition, there are hundreds of thousands of small businesses owned by entrepreneurs that make up the single biggest source of employment within the economy. Finally, in addition to the traditional professional classes of doctors, lawyers and teachers, there are hundreds of small consulting firms that give advice on anything from accounting, to management, to marketing and public relations, and on to various leadership practices and beyond.

Within the boundaries of any economic class definition, there exist multiple levels of economic achievement. Some people have achieved great wealth. Others have achieved the kind of wealth that one attains through building a small business. Others have invested wisely and achieved a degree of economic security. In addition, there is a huge difference between people who have billions of dollars, millions of dollars, and thousands of dollars in savings and income from that source. While it is true that there are huge concentrations of wealth and power in modern Free Market economies (a fact that needs constant address by anti-trust and other laws), there are also many people with fortunes that would have been deemed huge in prior eras but are now small by comparison to the wealthiest individuals.

Economics, is not, however, the only source of class distinction. For example, there exists in our society class of people who have technical skills in law, engineering, medicine, computer sciences, and other areas that form a distinct social class giving them a distinct view of society and social institutions. Having spent a number of years in graduate school, I can assure the reader that there exists a considerable class distinction between a tenured professor and the professor hired to teach one or two courses without benefits. Within our academic elite, there exists multiple classes.

There is a distinguishable class of persons who have managerial and bureaucratic skills that allow them to function in federal, state, and local governments. These people often have some degree of educational achievement that qualifies them for their positions in a level of experience gained by years of work in a bureaucratic organization. Once again, these people form a distinct group with its own distinct characteristics, and within these classes of people, there exists multiple subgroups.

There is also a group of people that work for the extremely large nonprofit sector of our economy. This includes churches, synagogues, mosques, other religious groups, social welfare agencies, and the like. This group of people often does not have the economic achievement or security of others but a high level of educational and professional attainment.

The point I am making is that the analysis of Marx adopted by Niebuhr is not sophisticated enough to explain the complexities of our society. This is important because most discouraging aspects of contemporary American society, and one of the sources of its political dysfunction, is the consistent attempt by political units to create a kind of class warfare in America along the model of Marx. It may ultimately be successful, but it will not be in the best interest of the American people. In the end, Niebuhr seems to see the limitations of his analysis when he concludes that no society can do away with privilege and the “inequalities” it creates. [3] I my view, this is not because privilege is something inherently suspect but because it is simply a natural outgrowth of the inherent nature of human society.

Social Class Good and Bad

The word “social class” has gained a negative connotation in our society. In my view, any kind of social progress beyond a Marx-inspired “politics of envy” depends upon regaining the idea that it’s a good thing that there are multiple social and economic classes in our or any society. People with certain abilities that want to work long hours in demanding occupations hours may gain economic advantages that others do not. On the other hand, people that have other goals, gain what those goals provide. Particular, the attainment of moral, ethical, aesthetic, and intellectual achievement requires groups of people who seek those particular achievements to the exclusion of wealth and power. In so doing, they inevitably form a class of persons that enrich all of society.

Classes in any society represent the inevitable grouping of people around certain personal, intellectual, aesthetic, religious, social and economic goals. This past week, I spent a few days in a monastery in central Mexico. Everyone in the monastery has taken a vow of poverty, but there were still representatives of differing social classes, intellectual abilities, national histories and the like. This diversity of personhood was a part of the richness of the experience.

According to Marx, the most common form of hypocrisy is the claim that the special privileges of certain individuals or groups are just compensation for performing especially useful or meritorious functions. Returning to the monastery, of course the leader of the monastery had special privileges. He sat at the head of the table, he led the worship services as he was able, His quarters were slightly larger, and he has an office from which to work. Most of his special privileges were a logical and natural result of his position. Others were required as part of the duties of his position, Sill others were a result of his age and long service to the order. Finally, some, such as an office, are the result of his duties and the necessity for privacy in conducting some of them.(People that hold confidential information and have confidential conversations need offices.)

The Selfishness and Hypocrisy of Social Groups

According to Niebuhr, the most common form of hypocrisy is the claim by privileged classes that their status and privileges are the just payment for their especially useful and meritorious functions, [4] This easily becomes a claim that the underprivileged classes lack the capacity to perform these functions, either because of heredity or lack of education.[5] Niebur appears on first glance to be advocating some kind of “classless society,” at least where economic matters are concerned. Later, he makes it plain he feels that it is impossible.

What is missing in Niebuhr’s analysis is an explanation as to how any society could function without giving special status and emoluments to those who in fact perform fundamental leadership roles and exact how one might go about finding a fair way to create privileges. In places he actually seems to recognize this fact. Human history gives no examples as to how a classless society can work and several examples as to why it is impossible. The “classless societies” of China, Russia, and other Marxist nations rapidly developed a high degree of social inequality and privilege. (Modern leftists often critique the social inequality in America forgetting that is was much worse the the “classless” Soviet Union.)

According to Niebuhr, dominant classes assert their moral superiority in order to buttress their claim to economic, educational and political privilege. It is hard to argue with this obvious truth. On the other hand, the real question is how to distinguish between valid and invalid claims for privilege.

An example is the belief that hard work and thriftiness (the so called “Calvinist Work Ethic”) tends to result in economic and social success. From a Marxist perspective this belief is ideological, but from any sound historical perspective it is just common sense and practical wisdom at work. It has, for example, not escaped scholars that Protestant Northern Europe, with its heritage of hard work and thrift, has been more successful and stable than the Roman Catholic southern Europe. This being the case, one is required to ask, what degree of privilege is simply the outgrowth of someone’s exemplary work?

The Ethical Attitudes of the Proletarian Class

According to Niebuhr, while social injustice has always been present, the particular conditions of the industrial age, combined with modern democratic ideology, allowed the emergence a self-conscious proletarian class. (I have the distinct feeling that, during the Middle Ages, the serfs and freeholders were self-conscious of their class and of social distinctions. It is hard to believe otherwise.) It is almost certain that Marx is not correct that industrialism created class consciousness, not even among the so-called proletariat. The social injustices of our age would not seem to me to be more severe and, in fact, probably less severe than in prior ages. [6]

According to Marx, the proletarian class is marked by conflicting moral attitudes. On the one hand, moral cynicism about the actual morality of men, along with, on the other hand, according to a Marxism analysis there is an “equalitarian deal” present in the proletariat that creates an inevitable movement for equality in society. [7] Moral cynicism is expressed in terms of a Marxist materialistic and deterministic interpretation of history. Society is viewed as solely a realm of conflict between classes; all other cultural, ethical, or religious features of society are seen as mere rationalizing ideologies meant to obscure this fact.

Having been a lawyer and pastor for many years, it is my observation that moral cynicism is as prevalent among the wealthy, the successful, and the well born as it is among the proletariat. In fact, it may even be more prevalent. I can remember many a long lunch in which a fellow lawyer, client, or business executive revealed the very same degree and type of moral cynicism that I have seen in counseling other social classes. Moral cynicism is a human not class phenomenon.


Next week, I will close this series with a look at Niebuhr’s view of the dynamics of social change, revolution, and the power of violence, concluding with a final look at the distinction he draws between personal and public morality. As mentioned in the first week’s blog, MMIS is the product of the early phase of Niebuhr’s career and contains views with which the later Niebuhr might not completely agree.

Ian reviewing this week’s blog, it is my feeling that I drifted away from the sympathetic reading style I have tried to have in this phase of my little project. For this, I apologize.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethic and Politics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1932, 2001), hereinafter, “MMIS”.

[2] I would be remiss if I did not indicate the value and reliance of this blog on an Article found at Strong Reading “Niebuhr, Reinhold, Moral Man and Immoral Society: A study in Ethics and Politics” (June 10, 2010), at (downloaded June 27, 2022.

[3] MMIS, at 128,

[4] MMIS, at 117.

[5] Id, at 118.

[6] I would like to take a moment to alert the reader to a facet of Niebuhr’s thought that is common among disaffected intellectuals. He viscerally dislikes the conditions of physical labor in modern industry, and instinctively finds it demeaning in a way that many laborers do not. According to Niebuhr, the depersonalized nature of industrial labor together with its increasingly mass scale has magnified the distance between classes while modern education has given the proletariat an understanding of its plight. In my earlier years, I was a member of a union and worked in a menial job on a railroad. Interestingly, many of the folks who worked on the railroad enjoyed their jobs, which I sometimes found hard to believe given the physical labor involved.

[7] MMIS, at 160.