Karl Marx (1818 – 83) was responsible for one of the first and most influential theories of class within the sociological discipline. For Marx, classes can be seen as basic social groups divided by their specific position within the division of labour, and distributed within society according to criteria such as ownership or non-ownership of the means of production and the need to sell or ability to buy labour. Marx also distinguished between a number of modes of production that were used to chart the sequence of historical development that resulted from changes in the economic base of society.
At the time Marx was writing, the emergence of the most recent stage of economic development was becoming apparent, specifically, Capitalism. It is within this stage that a great deal of Marx’s theories, concepts and arguments are centred. With the advent of capitalism, Marx in volume III of Capital outlined the three great classes of society: the Capitalists, the landowners and the wage labourers. He then went on to argue that in England, where capitalist society was at its most developed and definite ‘Middle and intermediate strata even here obliterate lines of demarcation everywhere’.
By this, he meant that the class structure of society was changing and that the introduction of a capitalist system was gradually simplifying the class structure by pushing the intermediate classes, such as the landowners out. Marx’s theory of proletarianization argued that eventually all workers would become wage labourers as capitalist societies became ever more polarised between the affluence of the capitalists and the poverty of the workers.
This situation was therefore producing two distinct classes, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, as detailed in the Communist Manifesto. Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other: Bourgeoisie and Proletariat. (Marx and Engels 1968: 49) The bourgeoisie can be defined as the owners of the means of production and the employers of wage labour, whereas the proletariat are those who own no means of production are forced to sell their wage labour in order to survive.
Marx saw this property ownership as the key factor in all social divisions, whereby the class that owns the means of production, the bourgeoisie, is in the position to command great power over the non – owning classes, the proletariat, and is therefore able to oppress and exploit this class. As Marx saw it, the workers wages were only worth a small proportion of the total value of the commodities they produced. By controlling this extra surplus value, the exploiting capitalist class were able to derive profit for the reinvestment within the business and as a source of personal income, thereby exploiting the workers for their own gains.
This exploitation of one class by another was the reason why ‘an inevitable conflict between the two main social classes over the price of labour and the labour processes ensued’. (Edgell 1993: 3) Marx argued that the continued deterioration of the workforce would lead to an increased class-consciousness of a political nature, whereby common interests formed the basis of policies and a struggle for political power occurs, class was now a base for political allegiance.
The proletariat would therefore join together in the form of trade unions to challenge the bourgeoisie on wage levels and working conditions and conflict between the two classes would ensue. Marx felt that although this would begin in localised areas such as the factory, it would eventually reach a national scale, and in the attempts to reach equality the class struggle would a produce a proletarian revolution. Eventually leading to the triumph of the proletariat, whereby capitalism would be forced out to make way for the installation of a new economic base, advanced communism as Marx saw it.
The division between classes will widen and the condition of the exploited worker will deteriorate so badly that social structure collapses: the class struggle is transformed into a proletarian revolution (Dahrendorf 1957) Marx’s conflict theory was not without criticism, however. This has mainly been derived from more contemporary sociologists who have had the benefit of hindsight when formulating theories. These sociologists who do not subscribe to the Marxist view of conflict have all argued that a class struggle within capitalist society has not taken place to the extent at which Marx had anticipated.
Marx’s two-class theory of capitalist society has come under a great deal of cynicism. This is due to the fact that in other texts, Marx identifies a great deal of other classes that would technically render the ‘neat divisions of the Communist Manifesto inapplicable’ (McLellan 1971: 158). In particular, the use of the petty – bourgeoisie and the peasantry appear in various works, while neo – Marxists such as Wright have put forward up to twelve class divisions based on Marx’s writings as well as the many fractions of these classes (1985: 195).
In Marx’s later works, he also became aware of the growing numbers of the middle class ‘who stand between the workman on one hand and the capitalist landlord on the other’ (1969: 573). It is clear from the sheer amount of literature written on this topic that the complexity of class structures and division has some part play in the suppression of class conflict. Another theory which may have an effect on class conflict is that of social mobility. This term is used to describe the movement of people between classes and is in relational to the hierarchal structure.
An upward movement can be seen as an improvement while a downward shift can be seen as deterioration in class prestige. Marx’s theory of proletarianization also applies here. He argued that ‘The lower strata of the middle class… all sink gradually into the proletariat’ (1968: 62), however, as capitalism progressed this proved not to be the case. Instead of all the middle classes being pushed into the proletariat, there was a massive upsurge in the numbers of the propertyless middle classes.
This was to become a major debate in sociology, between Marx’s theory of proletarianization on one hand and embourgeoisment on the other. The theory of embourgeoisment argued that the workers were becoming more like the middle class in terms of economic standing, lifestyle and attitudes, while the middle class were readily accepting them as social equals. Due to this social bettering the working class had a lot more to lose in a fierce class struggle and were therefore happy to uphold the system.
Weber claimed that the best option for the workers and the lower middle class was to become technologically trained, and this idea sits well with the theory of managerialism. This concept identifies the disappearance of the capitalist class, while ‘the growth in executive and managerial occupations has reduced the power and influence of those with capital’ (Dahrendorf 1957). This meant that capitalists were being replaced by salaried, middle class managers who were holding key positions in the expanding bureaucracies.
And with the expansion of business, came with it the growing demand for managers, this helped the new breed of technologically trained workers to rise up through the class boundaries and boost the numbers of middle class. This expanding class now dominated the stratification structure. The class war is over… we are all middle class now (Speech by Harold Macmillan 1959) With the great majority of the workers becoming more affluent and thus moving into the middle-class realm, and with no exploiting capitalist class, the catalyst for class conflict could be seen to of been removed.
However, other factors were also linked to the demise of class conflict. For instance, the lack of homogeneity within the working class. Workers did not become a group sharing all common characteristics but were instead divided. The affluence of some then meant that the traditional working class spirit of community and class-consciousness was eroded. The working classes were now pitted ‘against each other not for each other’ (Dahrendorf 1957).
The development of a welfare state and the provision of social security meant that workers felt as though they were part of a society rather than just an individual social group. Also, the idea of ‘fetishism for commodities’ whereby the pursuit of acquiring commodities distracts the worker from ‘the fight against the domination of capital’ (Marx 1970: 72) could also be seen to play a part. And with a great deal of worker-orientated legislation being passed working practices were becoming fair and equal. This has led to more contentment within the workplace and a feeling of place within society.
The growth and de-privatisation of industry has lead to a massive increase in the number of shareholders, and it is the more affluent workers that are buying these shares. Because of this, workers now have a stake in the businesses future and would therefore have much to lose in a class struggle. As well as Marx’s many theories on class and class conflict, a great deal of his work was concerned with history, the development of society and predictions and implications for the future. The basic concept of Marxism is that of historical materialism.
In short, Marx argued that societies progress through history by the operation of economic forces, and the motivator of social change is the class conflict between the owners of the means of production and the non – owning class. The resulting conflict of interests between the two groups certifies that out of this struggle, new economic conditions emerge. Thus, historical materialism is a model of evolution from one means of production to another. Marx saw historical materialism as a ‘theoretical perspective for understanding society and history’ (Morrison 1995: 35), and from it came four key concepts.
That of the means of production, the relations of production, the mode of production and the forces of production. In particular, Marx used the mode of production and forces of production to produce his theory of how he thought history would develop. Marx wrote ‘we can designate the Asiatic, ancient, feudal and the modern bourgeois modes of production as many epochs in the process of the economic formation of society’ (Marx as cited in Morrison 1995). Marx then began to theorize about the next stage of economic development.
Following his theory that class revolution would lead to progression in the economic system of production, Marx argued that for society to develop, the two major classes of the capitalist society would oppose each other in a class struggle, namely the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The exploitation of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie would lead the oppressed workers into a proletarian revolution. The outcome of this, Marx felt, would be a triumph for the workers that would eliminate the basis of class division in property through public ownership of the means of production.
With the basis of classes now irradiated, a classless society would follow, and since ‘political power to protect the bourgeoisie against the workers is unnecessary, political authority and the state will wither away’ (Dahrendorf 1957). This idea led Marx to suggest that the next stage of sociological development would be that of advanced communism where communal property is re-established and class divisions removed. However, Marx’s view of history has also come under scrutiny, and the idea of the development of a true classless society has come under much debate.
Many have argued that as history does not move in a straight line, it is impossible to predict the nature of human destiny. For instance, the development of new technology, the formulation of new theories, social movements and the ideologies of charismatic leaders can all have an impact on the course of history. This can be seen to no greater effect than from the emergence of figures such as Hitler and Osama Bin Laden, both of which could not of been predicted but have dramatically shaped the course of history.
Others argue that due to a lack of class conflict taking place, the revolutionary class progression cannot happen. This is vital in Marx’s historical theory, as it the class revolution the can be seen as the motivator of social change. Weber’s arguments in this field appear quite prolific. His theory of rationalization can be seen as a critique of Marx’s theory. Weber argued that we could never guarantee that our rational actions won’t have irrational consequences. Therefore, predictions based upon perceived rational actions are likely to be unviable due to their irrational consequences.
Weber also commented on Marx’s theory of the transition from capitalist to socialist society. He argued that it was impossible to escape from ‘victorious capitalism’ as the idea eliminating an ‘increasingly bureaucratic organisational system’ was becoming less and less feasible (1976: 181). This system was levelling the class structure and providing greater equality for all those concerned. Because of this, class conflict was unlikely to occur as the previously exploited classes became more content with what they derived from the system as a whole.
Edgell argued that to ensure success of a totally classless society it would not only be necessary ‘to abolish private property’ but also ‘abolish inheritance, implement a progressive taxation system, provide free education and health for all, and prevent any one social group from monopolizing political power and exercising it in their own interest’ (1993; 118). This would obviously be an immense task, and in a society of greed, personal betterence and obvious conflict to this idea, it would not prove straightforward. A further theory could be that of totalitarianism.
Theorists have claimed that a fear of system had been a reason for why socialism has not out placed capitalism in the Western world. Those who live under this regime experience total oppression, whereby there is little if any personal freedom and virtually everything becomes subordinate to the state. This system has also brought about with it many tyrannical leaders such as Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin, and has led to a general fear of socialism within capitalist societies. Because of this, it could be said that society has actively steered away from the factors they may lead to a revolution of this kind.
In conclusion, it is clear to see that Marx’s theories have been of immense importance, not only in sociological terms but in a far wider sense as well. With hindsight, it is easy to put forward theories as to why class conflict did not occur. Yet, it is unlikely that it is one single factor alone. Instead, a combination of many are likely to have played a part in the suppression of conflict, and it is therefore difficult to pinpoint one factor as being the definitive answer as to why class conflict did not occur.
This can also be said to be the same for Marx’s views on the history of society. While Marx did put forward a viable account of this history, he was no prophet. His predictions of a socialist society displacing capitalism, was, as yet, unfounded. Once again, this is unlikely to be due to one singular factor, but a combination of many. It is therefore easy to see why Marx has become a permanent part of sociological history and still provides an authority on these matters.