Class conflict is any conflict between people from different social classes because they have different interests, political tensions, or economic differences between them. Conflict happens because of socioeconomic competition between social strata or between the rich and the poor.
Theories that use this idea often hold that conflicts between classes are inevitable and work under an adversarial conception of classes. Conflict develops over topics such as equal opportunity, property, healthcare, education conditions of employment, and other sociopolitical concerns, as well as the allocation of power and income.
However, it is generally acknowledged that most of these group disputes do not directly challenge the underlying assumptions of the class structure. For instance, disputes between labor unions over wages and working conditions aim to improve the situation for a group within the current system. In most social disputes, individual classes are not mobilized. The distinction between conflict inside a system and conflict about it is thus essential.
The Marxist theory requires conflict between the social classes defined by capital ownership. Classes have conflicting collective goals, and their fight catalyzes social change.
Class Conflict research
Marx, one of the creators of the conflict method, predicted that conflict would inevitably get more extreme and severe, leading to a revolutionary catastrophe. In reality, levels of conflict have very rarely been so dangerous. In recent years, when a fundamental crisis has arisen, it has not been because of the opposition of one class to another but rather because of alliances and coalitions between various class groupings and on a variety of bases, including capital ownership and non-ownership.
The idea of class conflict can be constructive in understanding critical elements of the emergence and development of various struggles, such as the ongoing conflicts between employers and employees. However, it is essential to empirically research methods for neutralizing or institutionalizing conflict and elements that either prevent or promote the emergence of class consciousness and action.
Karl Marx and Class Conflict
“The history of all civilizations up to the present is the history of the class struggle,” famously said Marx. According to his perspective, the word “class” refers to the significant socioeconomic groups in all stratified societies, including individuals with a similar connection to the forces of production.
Marx said that western cultures, which evolved through the eras of primitive communism, ancient society, feudal society, and industrial capitalism, were examples of this. The only example of a classless society is primitive communism, which is based on a community form of production and distribution and is characterized by a subsistence economy.
From that point on, all societies are fundamentally split into two main groups at odds with one another: enslavers and enslaved people in ancient civilization, lords, and serfs during feudalism, and bourgeoisie and proletariat under the capitalist system.
The dominant subject class provided the workforce needed for production throughout each historical era. Marx believed that class struggle is caused by the exploitative connection to the forces of production, but it is also shown by the growth of these forces by a developing class.
The supremacy of the capitalist powers of production caused a quick change in the social order, but only after the emerging class’s revolutionary victory over the feudal system. Marx categorized a “class in itself” and a “class for itself” regarding actual or future class conflict. The former consists of a social unit whose members have a similar connection to the production forces.
Marx, however, believes that a social unit only really transforms into a class when it creates a “class for itself.” At this point, its members are fully cognizant of their oppression and exploitation and have developed a sense of class unity. Following the development of a shared identity and a similar interest, members of a class come together, becoming a cohesive class and finally resorting to violent revolution.
Marx’s writings on class antagonism in industrial capitalism were extensive. Its structure made it impossible to settle conflicts between classes. The class conflict would, therefore, eventually materialize due to the contradictions present in capitalism and the social systems it accompanies.
As capitalism grows, the labor force is concentrated in huge factories, where manufacturing becomes a social enterprise and highlights the proletariat’s exploitation and shared ills. A homogenous class would emerge due to increased usage of machines since such technology results in a leveling process of deskilling, boosting a feeling of shared experience and fostering a growing sense of alienation.
Marx thought that the class struggle that would topple the capitalist order would ensure that private property would be replaced by the jointly owned public property, even though industrial manufacture would remain the primary method of production in the new society, communally owned but at a higher level of technological development. History will finally end since it is a narrative of class conflict.
The socialist society that would replace capitalism would not have any dialectical inconsistencies, and the working class would essentially be abolished.
Comparing Marx and Weber
Max Weber was one of many who methodically examined Marx’s idea of class struggle. Many of the core ideas of Marxism were shared by Weber, especially the idea that the economy is the primary cause of stratification.
In contrast to Marx, Weber added two additional aspects to the economic component of stratification: prestige and power. Class distinctions led to the creation of “parties,” prestige distinctions created “status groupings,” and power distinctions produced “factions.”
Marx believed that members of any economic class might become aware of their class and organize around a common interest or goal, whereas Weber thought this was improbable. Instead, class awareness would not develop until it was clear to all participants that opposing groups’ interests were at odds with one another and that conflict would result. Weber makes it clear that status groups—united on the subjective premise of shared levels of social prestige—are more prone to form communities than economic classes are. Additionally, there could be a mismatch between a person’s status and class.
Intimate connections between classes, status groups, and parties were also noted by Weber. He maintained that parties might emerge based on comparable “class” goals, “status,” or both, but this is uncommon and that class struggle taking the form of a revolution is unlikely.
In reality, class antagonism is virtually absent in contemporary capitalism. Groups of workers have pushed for better pay and working conditions, but these struggles often pitted workers against one another and did not question the underlying principles of capitalism or the existence of a class society. The two world wars and the Civil Wars in Sri Lanka are examples of how ethnic and national conflict posed more significant risks to capitalist states in the 20th century than class struggle.
Critics of Marxian theory of class conflict
Marx’s idea of class struggle has drawn criticism on several different fronts since Weber. Contrary to Marx’s forecast, according to Dahrendorf (1959), the manual working class was growing more diverse. According to Dahrendorf, this is a result of changes in industrial technology that have given rise to differences in skill, financial and social status rewards, and interests among the ranks of manual laborers. These differences have undermined collective class consciousness and, as a result, have eliminated class conflict.
Another strategy was to contest Marx’s claim that the proletariat was an incredibly revolutionary class. Instead, Skocpol (1979) recognizes the peasant class as a necessary component of successful social revolutions in her seminal study. She draws this conclusion by comparing the results of the revolutions in medieval France, Russia, and China. Skocpol also points to the state as a factor in determining whether or not class struggle leads to a revolution. Before the revolutionary process can be fully realized, the state must be made weaker by internal and external pressures from the loss of coercive mechanisms in the world order since it is a largely independent set of institutions.