Understanding Marx: Class Struggle


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Forces of Divergence

But let there arise next to the little house a palace, and the little house shrinks to a hut. Conflict theory originated in the work of Karl Marx , who focused on the causes and consequences of class conflict between the bourgeoisie the owners of the means of production and the capitalists and the proletariat the working class and the poor.

Focusing on the economic, social, and political implications of the rise of capitalism in Europe , Marx theorized that this system, premised on the existence of a powerful minority class the bourgeoisie and an oppressed majority class the proletariat , created class conflict because the interests of the two were at odds, and resources were unjustly distributed among them.

A Brief Introduction to Marxism

Within this system an unequal social order was maintained through ideological coercion which created consensus--and acceptance of the values, expectations, and conditions as determined by the bourgeoisie. Marx reasoned that as the socio-economic conditions worsened for the proletariat, they would develop a class consciousness that revealed their exploitation at the hands of the wealthy capitalist class of bourgeoisie, and then they would revolt, demanding changes to smooth the conflict.

According to Marx, if the changes made to appease conflict maintained a capitalist system, then the cycle of conflict would repeat. However, if the changes made created a new system, like socialism , then peace and stability would be achieved. Many social theorists have built on Marx's conflict theory to bolster it, grow it, and refine it over the years.

Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, critical theorists who were part of The Frankfurt School , focused their work on how the rise of mass culture--mass produced art, music, and media--contributed to the maintenance of cultural hegemony. More recently, C. Wright Mills drew on conflict theory to describe the rise of a tiny "power elite" composed of military, economic, and political figures who have ruled America from the mid-twentieth century. Many others have drawn on conflict theory to develop other types of theory within the social sciences, including feminist theory , critical race theory , postmodern and postcolonial theory, queer theory, post-structural theory, and theories of globalization and world systems.

While these were historically important, and many still retain their wealth even today e. In order to retain their wealth, some of these landowners were able to transform their wealth in land into landed capital. While this constituted a somewhat different form than industrial capital, this meant that the land was also used as capital, to accumulate.

Understanding Conflict Theory

Labour may not be directly employed by landowners, but the land is used as a means by which capital can be expanded. Petty Bourgeoisie and Middle Class. The lower middle class or the petty petite bourgeoisie the bourgeoisie was sometimes called the middle class in this era , constitutes "the small manufacturer, the shopkeeper, the artisan, the peasant" Giddens and Held, p.

The characteristic of this class is that it does own some property, but not sufficient to have all work done by employees or workers. Members of this class must also work in order to survive, so they have a dual existence — as small scale property owners and as workers. Because of this dual role, members of this class have divided interests, usually wishing to preserve private property and property rights, but with interests often opposed to those of the capitalist class. This class is split internally as well, being geographically, industrially, and politically dispersed, so that it is difficult for it to act as a class.

Marx expected that this class would disappear as capitalism developed, with members moving into the bourgeoisie or into the working class, depending on whether or not they were successful. Many in this class have done this, but at the same time, this class seems to keep recreating itself in different forms. Marx considers the petite bourgeoisie to be politically conservative or reactionary, preferring to return to an older order.

This class has been considered by some Marxists to have been the base of fascism in the s and s. At other times, when it is acting in opposition to the interests of large capital, it may have a more radical or reformist bent to it anti-monopoly. Note on the Middle Class.

18th & 19th Century Methods for Change

The issue of the middle class or classes appears to be a major issue within Marxian theory, one often addressed by later Marxists. Many Marxists attempt to show that the middle class is declining, and polarization of society into two classes is a strong tendency within capitalism. Marx's view was that the successful members of the middle class would become members of the bourgeoisie, while the unsuccessful would be forced into the proletariat. In the last few years, many have argued that in North America, and perhaps on a world scale, there is an increasing gap between rich and poor and there is a declining middle.

While there have been tendencies in this direction, especially among the farmers and peasantry, there has been no clear long run trend toward decline of the middle class. At the same time as there has been polarization of classes, there have been new middle groupings created. Some of these are small business people, shopkeepers, and small producers while others are professional and managerial personnel, and some intellectual personnel.

Well paid working class members and independent trades people might consider themselves to be members of the middle class. Some segments of this grouping have expanded in number in recent years. While it is not clear that these groups hold together and constitute a class in any Marxian sense of being combined in opposition to other classes, they do form a middle grouping.

Class Consciousness and False Consciousness as Defined by Marx

Since Marx's prediction has not come true, sociologists and other writers have devoted much attention to explaining this middle grouping — what is its basis, what are the causes of its stability or growth, how it fits into the class structure, and what are the effects of its existence on proletariat and bourgeoisie. Marx also mentions the "dangerous class" or the social scum. Among the members of this group are "ruined and adventurous offshoots of the bourgeoisie, vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds..

This is the lumpenproletariat. He does not consider this group to be of any importance in terms of potential for creating socialism, if anything they may be considered to have a conservative influence. Other writers and analysts have considered them to have some revolutionary potential.

Means of Production, Relations of Production

One of the main reasons for mentioning them is to emphasize how capitalism uses, misuses and discards people, not treating them as humans. Today's representative of this class of lumpenproletariat are the homeless and the underclass. Peasantry and Farmers. Marx considered the peasantry to be disorganized, dispersed, and incapable of carrying out change. Marx also expected that this class would tend to disappear, with most becoming displaced from the land and joining the proletariat. The more successful might become landowners or capitalist farmers.

With respect to family farmers as a group, much the same could be said. However, Marx was not really very familiar with these as a group, and had little to say about these. The various analyses of the role of farmers in the Prairies constitute a more adequate view of what may be expected from this group. They could be considered to form a class when they act together as a group.


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In the early days of Prairie settlement, farms were of similar size, farmers had generally similar interests, and the farm population acted together to create the cooperative movement and the Wheat Board. More recently, Prairie farmers are often considered to be split into different groups or strata, dependent on type of farming, size of farm, and whether or not they employ labour.

Farmers have not been able to act together as a class in political and economic actions in recent years. Lobbying by some farm groups have been successful, but these do not usually represent farmers as a whole. Group Basis. For Marx, classes cannot be defined by beginning observation and analysis from individuals, and building a definition of a social class as an aggregate of individuals with particular characteristics. The latter is a stratification approach that begins by examining the characteristics of individuals, and from this amassing a view of social class structure as a whole.

The Manifesto of the Communist Party

This stratification approach often combines income, education, and social prestige or status into an index of socioeconomic status, creating a gradation from upper class to lower class. The stratification approach is essentially a classification, and for Marx classes have meaning only as they are real groups in the social structure. Groups mean interaction among members, common consciousness, and similar types of behaviour that are connected in some way with group behaviour.

Categories such as upper class, middle class and lower class, where those in each category may be similar only in the view of the researcher are not fully Marxian in nature. Classes are groups, and Marx discusses the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, not individual capitalists and individual workers. As individuals, these people may be considered members of a class, but class only acquires real meaning when it the class as a whole and the social relationships defining them that are considered.

For example, "The bourgeoisie Here the bourgeoisie is historically created and is an actor in politics, economics and history. In terms of individuals as members of classes, they are members of a class as they act as members of that class. For example, Marx notes that burghers or members of the bourgeoisie in early capitalist Europe:. Giddens and Held, To the extent that individuals are considered in the social system, they are defined by their class.

For Marxists, class structures exist as objective facts, and a researcher could examine class and membership of a class, but would have to understand the nature of the whole social and economic structure in order to do so. To the extent that these members act in society, they act as representatives of their class, although Marx would leave some room for individual freedom of action. Property and Class. Classes are formed by the forces that define the mode of production, and classes are an aspect of the relations of production.

That is, classes do not result from distribution of products income differences, lender and borrower , social evaluation status honour , or political or military power, but emerge right from relationship to the process of production.

Classes are an essential aspect of production, the division of labour and the labour process. Giddens notes:. Classes are constituted by the relationship of groupings of individuals to the ownership of private property in the means of production. This yields a model of class relations which is basically dichotomous [since some own and others do not, some work and others live off the fruits of those who labour]: all class societies are built around a primary line of division between two antagonistic classes, one dominant and the other subordinate.

Giddens, p. In describing various societies, Marx lists a number of classes and antagonistic social relationship such as "freeman and slave, While Marx also mentions various ranks and orders of society, such as vassals and knights, the forms of struggle between classes are primarily viewed as occurring around control and use of property, the means of production, and production as a whole, and the manner in which these are used. The basic struggle concerns who performs the labour, and who obtains the benefits from this labour. An elite is not necessarily a class for Marx.

Examples of elites are military elites, priests or religious leaders, and political elites — these may may very powerful and oppressive, and may exercise formal rule at a certain time or place. An elite could form a class, but a political or military elite is not necessarily a class — an elite may be based on recruitment rather than ownership and may not have much ultimate say in determining the direction of society.

Or the elite may be based on religious, military, political or other structures.

Understanding Marx: Class Struggle Understanding Marx: Class Struggle
Understanding Marx: Class Struggle Understanding Marx: Class Struggle
Understanding Marx: Class Struggle Understanding Marx: Class Struggle
Understanding Marx: Class Struggle Understanding Marx: Class Struggle
Understanding Marx: Class Struggle Understanding Marx: Class Struggle
Understanding Marx: Class Struggle Understanding Marx: Class Struggle
Understanding Marx: Class Struggle Understanding Marx: Class Struggle

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