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Class conflict refers to the underlying tensions or antagonisms which exist in society due to conflicting interests that arise from different social positions. Class conflict is thought to play a pivotal role in history of class societies (such as capitalism and feudalism) by Marxists[1] who refer to its overt manifestations as class war, a struggle whose resolution in favor of the working class is viewed by them as inevitable under capitalism.

Class conflict can take many different shapes. Direct violence, such as wars fought for resources and cheap labor; indirect violence, such as deaths from poverty, starvation or unsafe working conditions; coercion, such as the threat of losing a job or pulling an important investment; or ideology, either intentionally (as with books and articles promoting anti-capitalism) or unintentionally (as with the promotion of consumerism through advertising).

It can be open, as with a lockout aimed at destroying a labor union, or hidden, as with an informal slowdown in production protesting low wages or unfair labor practices.


Definition of Classes and Class Conflict

Class conflict is a term long-used mostly by socialists, Communists, and many anarchists define a 'class' by its relationship to the 'means of production'--such as factories, land, and machinery. From this point of view, the social control of production and labour is a contest between classes, and the division of these resources necessarily involves conflict and inflicts harm.

Class conflict in pre-capitalist societies

Where societies are socially divided based on status, wealth, or control of social production and distribution, conflict arises. This conflict is both everyday, such as the common Medieval right of lords to control access to grain mills and baking ovens, or it can be exceptional such as the Roman Conflict of the Orders, the uprising of Spartacus, or the various popular uprisings in late medieval Europe. One of the earliest analysis of these conflicts is Frederick Engel's German Peasants War[2]. One of the earliest analyses of the development of class as the development of conflicts between emergent classes is available in Peter Kropotkin's Mutual Aid. In this work, Kropotkin analyzes the disposal of goods after death in pre-class societies, and how inheritance produces early class divisions and conflict[3].

Class conflict in Capitalism

The typical example of class conflict described is class conflict within capitalism. This class conflict is seen to occur primarily between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, and takes the form of conflict over hours of work, value of wages, cost of consumer goods, the culture at work, control over parliament or bureaucracy, and economic inequality. The particular implementation of government programs which may seem purely humanitarian, such as disaster relief, can actually be a form of class conflict.[4] Apart from these day-to-day forms of class conflict, during periods of crisis or revolution class conflict takes on a violent nature and involves repression, assault, restriction of civil liberties, and murderous violence such as assassinations or death squads.

Class conflict in the Soviet Union and similar societies

A variety of predominantly Marxist and anarchist thinkers argue that class conflict exists in Soviet-style societies. These arguments describe as a class the bureaucratic stratum formed by the ruling political party (known as the Nomenklatura in the Soviet Union)--sometimes termed a "new class".[5] --that controls the means of production. This ruling class is viewed to be in opposition to the remainder of society, generally considered the proletariat. This type of system is referred to by its detractors as state capitalism, state socialism, bureaucratic collectivism, coordinatorism, or new class societies.

Karl Marx and Max Weber on Class Conflict

Karl Marx and Max Weber are both critical to the development of the study of class conflict. In The Communist Manifesto, Marx describes his ideas about class conflict. Marx gives his own interpretation of what can be defined as a class. He states that a class is formed when its members achieve class consciousness and solidarity [6] This largely happens when the members of a class become aware of their exploitation and the conflict with another class. A class will then realize their shared interests and a common identity. According to Marx, a class will then take action against those that are exploiting the lower classes. Marx largely focuses on the capital industrialist society as the source of stratification, which ultimately results in class conflict [6]. He states that capitalism creates a division between classes which can largely be seen in manufacturing factories. The working class, or the proletariat, is separated from the bourgeoisie because production becomes a social enterprise. Contributing to their separation is the technology that is in factories. Technology deskills and alienates workers as they are no longer viewed as having a specialized skill [6]. Another effect of technology is a homogenous workforce that can be easily replaceable. Marx believed that this class conflict would result in the overthrow of the bourgeoisie and that the private property would be communally owned [6]. The mode of production would remain, but communal ownership would eliminate class conflict [6].

Max Weber agrees with the fundamental ideas of Marx about the economy causing class conflict, but claims that class conflict can also stem from prestige and power [6]. Weber argues that classes come from the different property locations. Different locations can largely affect one’s class by their education and the people they associate with [6]. He also states that prestige results in different status groupings. This prestige is based upon the social status of one’s parents. Prestige is an attributed value and many times cannot be changed. Weber states that power differences led to the formation of political parties [6]. Weber disagrees with Marx about the formation of classes. While Marx believes that groups are similar due to their economic status, Weber argues that classes are largely formed by social status [6]. Weber does not believe that communities are formed by economic standing, but by similar social prestige [6]. Weber does recognize that there is a relationship between social status, social prestige and classes [6].

See also

Further reading

  • Class & Class Conflict in Industrial Society,Ralf Dahrendorf, Stanford University Press, 1959, trade paperback, 336 pages, ISBN 0-8047-0561-5 (also available in hardback as ISBN 0-8047-0560-7 and ISBN 1-131-15573-4).
  • The Global Class War: How America's Bipartisan Elite Lost Our Future and What It Will Take to Win It Back Jeff Faux, John Wiley and Sons. 2006. ISBN 978-0-471-69761-9
  • Li Yi. 2005. The Structure and Evolution of Chinese Social Stratification. University Press of America. ISBN 0-7618-3331-5


  1. ^ Marx, Karl; and others (1848). The Communist Manifesto. [1]:  
  2. ^ Frederick Engels, German Peasants War,
  3. ^ Peter Kropotkin, Mutual Aid
  4. ^ Greg Palast, Burn baby burn
  5. ^ Đilas, Milovan (1983, 1957). The New Class: An Analysis of the Communist System (paperback ed.). San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. ISBN 0-15-665489-X.  
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Blackwell Reference Online.[2]. Retrieved November 24, 2008.


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