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Class Conflict

Class Conflict


Class conflicts are a crucial determinant of historical change, for history is the history of class struggles (Marx and Engels [1848] 1998, p. 2); they are endemic because class interests are contradictory, and irresolvable as long as the mode of production remains unchanged. Class conflicts are inherent in the relationship between owners of means of production, who appropriate most of the surplus value created through production, and the direct producers whose share allows them, at best, only to reproduce themselves as workers. Non-Marxist theories of class, based on functionalist or Weberian perspectives, tend to underemphasize the collective dimension of class and its foundation in the objective relationship of people to the means of production. They define class, instead, as an attribute of individuals constructed on the basis of their education, occupation, income, ownership of resources, place in the occupational hierarchy, and so on. Consequently, they conflate class with socioeconomic status, thus obscuring the qualitative differences between class structure and social stratification.

In precapitalist social formations, class struggles assumed different forms, depending on the level of development of the productive forces, and the forms of appropriation of the surplus. Land was the main means of production and complex patterns of land ownership were reflected in complex networks of class relations and struggles between masters and slaves, patricians and plebeians, lords and serfs, guild-master and journeyman (Marx and Engels [1848] 1998, p. 2), landowners and tenant farmers, and so forth. The Roman and Greek economies, for example, wereslave economies, despite the presence of free, independent peasants and small producers, because the main way in which the dominant propertied classes of the ancient world derived their surplus was due to unfree labor (de Ste. Croix 1981, p. 52). And the process of primitive accumulation through which money and commodities became capital, and serfs, independent peasants, and small producers became wageworkers, entailed the expropriation of direct producers from the land through unrelenting class struggles; its history is written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire (Marx [1867] 1967, pp. 713-716).

In capitalist social formations today, where labor is formally free, the struggle centers around wage levels and the length of the working day, for capitalists seek to keep wages low, working hours long, and profits high. In the market, where workers and capitalists meet as equal commodity owners, capitalists purchase the only commodity workers can sell: labor power. The use value of labor power is the production of value far greater than its own (i.e., the value of the wages capitalists pay); this value is embodied in the product. In the context of production, there is no equality: Capitalists control working conditions, the labor process, the length of the working day, and they own the product (Marx [1867] 1967, chs. VI and VII). Workers demands for the eight-hour day led to violent class struggles in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Foner 1986). Conflicts about the length of the working day persist today; some employers impose overtime rather than hire more workers and low wages force many workers to hold more than one job or work more than eight hours a day.

The revolutionary worldwide confrontation between capital and labor predicted in the Communist Manifesto (Marx and Engels [1848] 1998) has yet to happen, however, and localized attempts in Eastern Europe, China, and Latin America have failed. Workers today do not have class consciousness in the classic sense; they do not share a sense of themselves as a class with common anticapitalist grievances and, consequently, they are not a class for itself united and with clarity of purpose (Marx [1846] 1947). They are only concerned with economic survival, not with the overthrow of capitalism: They are merely a class in itself, objectively identifiable by social scientists, but lacking self-awareness. Workers spontaneous consciousness is largely individualistic and economistic, a phenomenon that Marxist theorists have addressed in different ways.

V. I. Lenin argued that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness ([1902] 1967, p. 122), hence his support for the role of a vanguard party and the bourgeois intelligentsia in politically educating the working class. Adhering to the principle of historical materialism, that social existence determines consciousness (Marx and Engels [1846] 1947, pp. 13-14), Georg Lukacs emphasized the role of praxis or human activity in the formation of class consciousness. It is through working-class praxis that society can become conscious of itself, for the proletariat is both the subject and object of history (Lukacs 1971, pp. 18-19). Only from the class standpoint of the proletariat is it possible to comprehend social reality as a totality, a crucial prerequisite to acting as a self-conscious class (p. 20). It is unclear, however, how this comprehension will emerge, because the forces of history unfold independently of individuals intentions and consciousness. Consciousness, Lukacs states, is subjectively justified in its historical context, though it objectively appears as false consciousness [because] it by-passes the essence of the evolution of society [and] fails to express it adequately (pp. 47-50; italics in original). Whatever the intended motives and goals of this false consciousness may be, however, they further the objective aims of society (p. 50; italics in original).

Class consciousness, consequently, is something different from the ordinary thoughts individuals develop through praxis; it is neither the sum nor the average of what is thought or felt by the single individuals who make up the class (p. 51). Rather, it is the appropriate and rational reactions imputed to a particular typical position in the process of production (p. 51). Using Webers methodology (Kalberg 2005, pp. 14-22), Lukacs constructs an ideal type of class consciousness, by relating it to society as a whole and then inferring the thoughts and feelings that individuals in different class positions would have if they had access to knowledge of the totality (i.e., the mode of production) and of their place in it (p. 51). Impeding the development of true proletarian class consciousness are commodity fetishism and other reifications characteristic of capitalist culture. Lukacss arguments imply, however, that as capitalism develops, workers will eventually discern their place and objectives in the totality and will therefore consciously further the aims of history.

Whether social reality will eventually become transparent or ideology will always cloud class consciousness and, more generally, peoples spontaneous understanding of their conditions of existence, remains an unresolved issue. Louis Althussers view is that ideology as such, unlike specific ideologies, has no history; it is, like Freuds unconscious, omnipresent and eternal (Althusser 2001, p. 109). To say that ideology is eternal is to point out that individuals, spontaneously, cannot penetrate the logic of history and thus acquire knowledge of the unintended consequences of their actions. The opacity of social reality is a transhistorical aspect of the human condition, unlikely to change even after capitalism has been superseded by a society in which the direct producers are in control of the mode of production. And to say that ideology has no history is to recognize that all forms of consciousness and all systematic products of intellectual labor (morality, religion, philosophy, and politics) are the outcome of human material practices under historically specific conditions of existence (Marx and Engels [1846] 1947, pp 14-15).

The capitalist state rules through repressive (e.g., army, police, prisons) and ideological (e.g., family, schools, media, religion) state apparatuses. Through the latter, individuals are transformed into subjects, uncritically accepting their subjection to the Subject (i.e., God, Race, Nation, and Capital) whose power is exerted through the subjectification process. Ideologies have a material existence in practices, rituals, and institutions; they interpellate individuals as particular subjects (e.g., male, female, black, white, worker, capitalist, criminal), eliciting immediate recognition because individuals, whose social existence is embedded in ideological and material practices and rituals, are always-already subjects (Althusser 2001, pp. 112-119). In a society in which class is part of the common sense understanding of the world and of political discourse, class would enter into the formation of subjectivities. In the United States, however, where people are afflicted with a serious case of social amnesia (Aronowitz 1992, p. 72), it is the interpellation of cultural identities that structures peoples subjectivities. It is through identities, rather than class, that people understand their lives and this is why the power of ideology stems from the degree to which, in Althussers terms, it becomes lived experience (Aronowitz 1992, p. 36). Thus conceived, ideology precludes the spontaneous emergence of class consciousness, without the intervention of political parties and intellectuals bringing to the working classes an analysis of their lives that may tear away the ideological veils.

In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels confidently predicted that class conflicts would eventually result in the overthrow of capitalism. Their argument rests upon the notion of a dialectical relationship between the active and the reserve armies of labor, which assumed that the same workers would, because of the ebbs and flows of capital accumulation, experience both periods of poverty and unemployment and of economic well being. These experiences would, presumably, be the material condition for the rise of a class-conscious working class, the grave diggers of the bourgeoisie, self-consciously engaging in anticapitalist class struggles (Marx and Engels [1848] 1998, pp. 23-24; Arrighi 1990, pp. 29-30). But while that was the case in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as capitalism spread throughout the world it divided the global working classes, with most of the active armies located in the advanced capitalist countries and most of the reserve armies located in the poorer countries. Within countries, the gap between the active and the reserve armies grew large, and the ideological effects that emerged from workers sharing common conditions of existence largely disappeared after World War II. Today, globalization has produced a reshuffling of the global working classes; most of the active army is now in the poorer countries, whereas workers in the wealthy countries face declining wages and competition from immigrant labor willing to work for less (Arrighi 1990, p. 53).

As these changes accelerate, class conflicts might become more widespread, but this does not necessarily mean that class consciousness will eventually replace other forms of workers consciousness, such as, for example, identity politics, racism, or xenophobia. In any case, class conflicts will continue for as long as capitalism remains the dominant mode of production. Such conflicts have been and will continue to be fought under a variety of ideological banners because people, as ensembles of social relations (Marx 1947, p. 198), live their lives at the crossroads of multiple experiences. Marx pointed the way toward an understanding of the relationship between social change, conflicts, and consciousness. In the process of studying change, it is always necessary to distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, artistic or philosophicin short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out ([1859] 1970, p. 21). From Marxs standpoint, class consciousness should not be understood in purely economic terms, but in all its complexity. It emerges from changes in peoples experiences and participation in class conflicts, which together pose challenges to the ideologies that have shaped their representations of those conflicts and experiences. Common experiences, the basis for the emergence of class consciousness, are determined by the productive relations into which men are bornor enter involuntarily. Class consciousness is the way in which these experiences are handled in cultural terms (Thompson 1966, pp. 9-10). These insights from Marx and E. P. Thompson indicate that it is necessary to examine the underlying class basis of contemporary processes of political mobilization and of struggles such as those happening in Bolivia, Mexico, and Venezuela. Underlying populist and indigenous movements for social justice and national independence from imperialist and corporate domination are material class interests, which fuel the rise of political leaders like Evo Morales (Bolivia), Lopez Obrador (Mexico), and Hugo Chavez (Venezuela), as well as the national and transnational opposition to them.

While class conflicts are inherent in class societies, this does not mean that if classless societies become possible in the future, conflicts will end. Class conflicts are grounded in struggles around the production and appropriation of the surplus. Under capitalism, they presuppose the existence of the capitalist and working classes. Were these classes to be abolished and some form of collective ownership of the means of production to replace capitalism, social conflicts would not end, however; the division of labor would continue to divide the population according to occupation, skills, and economic rewards. Struggles over redistribution of income would replace class conflicts focused on the abolition of the mode of production. And because racial, ethnic, gender, and other differences irreducible to class would continue to exist, struggles about recognition (Fraser 1995) would continue as well. Conflicts based on social stratification would continue for as long as the subjective and material conditions inherited from capitalism persisted and competed with new forms of consciousness, practices, institutions, and so forth. The interconnections between experience and consciousness suggests, however, that as class conflict disappeared, the material conditions for social antagonisms at the level of social stratification would likely be eroded as well. In any case, as long as capitalism is the dominant mode of production, class conflict will continue to shape national and transnational political struggles.

SEE ALSO Class; Marx, Karl; Middle Class; Surplus Value


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Aronowitz, Stanley. 1992. The Politics of Identity: Class, Culture, Social Movements. New York: Routledge.

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de Ste. Croix, G. E. M. 1981. The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World: From the Archaic Age to the Arab Conquests. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Foner, Philip S. 1986. May Day: A Short History of the International Workers Holiday, 1886-1986. New York: International Publishers.

Kalberg, Stephen, ed. 2005. Max Weber: Readings and Commentary on Modernity. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

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Thompson, E. P. 1966. The Making of the English Working Class. New York: Vintage Books.

Martha E. Gimenez

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Class Conflict


CLASS CONFLICT. Social distinctions have existed inmost societies, such as the orders of the European feudal system or the castes of Indian society, but the modern concept of social class emerged during the nineteenth century. In the classic definition of German political economist Karl Marx, societies are divided into classes based on their socioeconomic status, more particularly, those who own capital (factory owners, for example) and those who do not and must rely on wages for subsistence.

Social Classes

In the United States, the high level of social mobility and the high percentage of people owning individual property have sparked a debate over whether there are genuine American social classes at all. Initial immigration came from a relatively narrow social range, mostly craftsmen and peasants from the "middle sort," rich enough to pay for the journey to America but poor enough to have an incentive to do so. Even indentured servants, immigrants placing themselves in voluntary servitude for a period of about five years in exchange for the cost of the trip, gained freedom eventually; furthermore, their number declined after the American Revolution. Only black slaves, disenfranchised and permanently deprived of property ownership, could legitimately be described as a social class.

The peculiar social environment of the frontier, in which opportunities abounded, allowed most white males to experience social mobility, whether upward or downward. The process prevented permanent classes with distinct tastes and ways of life from forming, to the point where the European elite sneered at American nouveaux riches, who had no proper education to match their newfound fortunes. This social hierarchy, based almost solely on wealth acquired by merit, justified the huge income gap that still characterizes American society. A survey reported in the New York Times (26 October 1998) found that in 1994, the 30 percent richest Americans commandeered 55.3 percent of the national wealth, a higher percentage than in any similar industrialized country. Still, income inequality gave rise to only limited social unrest.

Faith in Upward Social Mobility

Despite two famous exceptions, the first years of the Republic were relatively conflict free. From 1786 to 1787, Daniel Shays headed a revolt of several hundred men aimed against foreclosures and high taxes. A military failure, Shays's revolt nevertheless convinced the legislature of Massachusetts to pass a law protecting indebted farmers. In 1799, John Fries launched another revolt in Pennsylvania to free from prison citizens who had refused to pay a new property tax. For the first half of the nineteenth century, many Americans believed in the Jeffersonian ideal of a united, peaceful, egalitarian society of yeomen, or small independent farmers.

Many of the captains of industry who rose to prominence after the Civil War had humble origins. Andrew Carnegie, Philip Armour, Gustavus Swift, Daniel Drew, Jay Gould, James Fisk, John D. Rockefeller, Jay Cooke, James J. Hill, and Collis Huntington could legitimately claim that they had gone from rags to riches. William Vanderbilt, Edward Harriman, Henry Villard, and Henry Clay Frick were among the few for whom a more privileged background had served as a stepping-stone. Faith in upward social mobility in the late nineteenth century was best exemplified in the popular novels by Horatio Alger, in which young heroes enrich themselves through honesty, hard work, and—in part—luck.

Many of these entrepreneurs, most prominently steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, the son and grandson of Scottish blue-collar agitators, devoted part of their wealth to philanthropic causes that helped poor people help themselves. (Carnegie funded public libraries, schools, and museums.) The deserving poor, unable to work because of a crippling injury, also received help, but most of the poor, having failed to succeed in an open social environment, were seen as morally deficient. In England, philosopher Herbert Spencer, inspired by the works of Charles Darwin, compared society to a struggle of species, in which superior individuals became rich while the unfit crowded the lower classes. In The United States, sociologist William Graham Sumner, author of What Social Classes Owe Each Other (1883), argued that societies, like species, improved through unfettered competition. Hence, he concluded, the state should stay out of class conflicts, as these were essential albeit painful steps in the process of natural selection. This view, known as Social Darwinism, was extremely influential among the rich.

The Elusive Threat of Class Conflict

Throughout the 1870s and 1880s, a wave of farmer unrest known as populism swept the South, the Midwest, and the Great Plains. Populists protested the ever-diminishing prices of agricultural products. This problem was compounded by the deflationary policies followed by the federal government after the Civil War, characterized most notably by the retirement of wartime banknotes (greenbacks) and the maintenance of a gold standard. The populists also loathed the big corporate monopolies that controlled grain elevators and set train freight rates. They created farmers' associations such as the Grange, founded 1867, and the Farmers' Alliances, established in the 1870s. They also supported the unsuccessful presidential bids of James B. Weaver (1892) and William Jennings Bryan (1896, 1900, 1908). A rising supply of gold resulted in an inflationary trend and populism declined at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Rapid industrialization made some successful entrepreneurs extremely wealthy at the expense of a class of wage earners, often young women and immigrants, living in dire poverty. This chasm raised the specter of class warfare, which the rise of a militant socialist movement in Europe and the death of William McKinley at the hands of the anarchist Leon F. Czolgosz (1901) made more menacing. Progressives warned that the concentration of economic power stifled upward social mobility, an argument widely disseminated by Upton Sinclair's best-selling novel, The Jungle (1906).

On 4 May 1886, police and protesters clashed violently in the Haymarket Riot after the failure of a strike at the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company in Chicago for an eight-hour day. From 11 May to 2 August 1894, a strike originating in the Pullman Palace Car Company near Chicago paralyzed the nation before courts and federal troops stepped in. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, or Wobblies), a radical labor union, was formed in Chicago in 1905.

These episodes of class conflict never altered fundamentally the political landscape. Radical candidates enjoyed only rare local successes, while Socialist candidate Eugene Victor Debs trailed far behind in the presidential elections of 1900, 1904, 1908, 1912, and 1920. The IWW faded away during World War I.

The Great Depression, starting in 1929, resulted in renewed hardships for the working class and for farmers, many of whom lost their land in drought-plagued Midwestern states. Yet even this, the greatest economic cataclysm in U.S. history, had limited consequences. During the Great Depression, membership in the Communist Party rose only from 7,000 in 1930 to a peak of about 90,000 in 1939. In 1930, William Green, president of the American Federation of Labor, stated that he opposed unemployment insurance, for it would turn every worker into "a ward of the state."

Inspired by earlier trade unions such as the Knights of Labor (founded 1869), the AFL represented only the elite of the working class, including skilled craftsmen. Yet even the more radical Congress of Industrial Organizations, initiated by United Mineworkers president John L. Lewis in 1935, was hardly a revolutionary organization. The CIO was more confrontational in its tone and more open to blacks and unskilled workers than was the AFL. But despite the rise in union membership and militancy, social legislation—including section 7a of the National Recovery Act (1933) and the Wagner Act (1935), which protected the right of workers to organize—assured that unions would be negotiating partners rather than revolutionary organizations. In 1941, the AFL and the CIO made no-strike pledges for the duration of the war.

The booming postwar economy allowed many blue collars to become middle-class suburban property owners with few reasons to upset the social order. But during the 1960s, liberals argued that a permanently impoverished underclass existed in America, a thesis most famously expounded in Michael Harrington's The Other America (1962). President Lyndon B. Johnson launched the Great Society, whose main goals were racial equality and the eradication of poverty. Aside from banning racial discrimination and protecting the right of African Americans to vote, Great Society legislation of the mid-1960s offered the poor free medical care (Medicaid), enhanced educational opportunities (Elementary and Secondary Education Act), early education (Head Start), subsidized housing (Housing and Community Development Act), and urban renewal projects (Community Action Programs). Still, a sharp racial divide continued to exist in America. Considerable racial separation and a high level of African American poverty persisted. In turn, ameliatory measures such as positive discrimination (affirmative action) and busing created a "white backlash" in some segments of America, particularly the working class, whose previous political apathy could be attributed to the belief in a social system based on merit.

There was also a conservative backlash against welfare policies. Public concern about "welfare queens" (a lower class permanently living off welfare) helped conservative candidates such as Ronald Reagan. In his State of the Union Address in 1996, President William Jefferson Clinton declared that "the era of big government is over" and stricter welfare policies instituted during his presidency marked a return to a traditional conception of American society according to which the lower class is a fluid body whose members should escape their social status through merit and work.


Dawley, Alan. Struggles for Justice: Social Responsibility and the Liberal State. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991.

Fried, Richard M. Nightmare in Red: The McCarthy Era in Perspective. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Matusow, Allen J. The Unraveling of America: A History of Liberalism in the 1960s. New York: Harper and Row, 1984.

Newman, Katherine S. Falling from Grace: Downward Mobility in the Age of Affluence. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

Philippe R.Girard

See alsoAmerican Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations ; Civil Rights Movement ; Class ; Farmers' Alliance ; Fries' Rebellion ; Great Depression ; Haymarket Riot ; New Deal ; Populism ; Poverty ; Pullman Strike ; Shays's Rebellion ; Social Darwinism ; Strikes ; War on Poverty ; Welfare System .

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