Class Conflict Essay

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Marx famously stated “the history of all societies up to the present is the history of the class struggle.” In his interpretation, the term class is used to refer to the main strata in all stratified society as constituted by a social group whose members share the same relationship to the forces of production. This was evident, according to Marx, in western societies which developed through the epochs of primitive communism, ancient society, feudal society, and industrial capitalism. Primitive communism, based on a communal mode of production and distribution, typified by a subsistence economy, represents the only example of a classless society. From then on, all societies are divided into essentially two major classes that are in an antagonistic relationship: masters and slaves in ancient society, lords and serfs under feudalism, and bourgeoisie and proletariat under the capitalist order. During each historical epoch the labor power required for production was supplied by the majority subject class. While, for Marx, class conflict arises in the exploitative situation evoked by the relationship to the forces of production, it is also evident through the development of such forces by an emerging class. The superiority of the capitalist forces of production, by way of illustration, led to a rapid transformation of the social structure, but only after the revolutionary triumph of the emergent class over the feudal order.

In terms of class conflict, or potential class conflict, Marx distinguished between a ”class in itself and a ”class for itself. The former comprises a social grouping whose constituents share the same relationship to the forces of production. However, for Marx, a social grouping only fully becomes a class when it forms a ”class for itself.” At this stage, its members have achieved class consciousness and solidarity — a full awareness of their true situation of exploitation and oppression. Members of a class subsequently develop a common identity, recognize their shared interest, and unite, so creating class cohesion and ultimately taking recourse to revolutionary violence.

Much of Marx s work was concerned with class conflict in capitalist industrial society. Class antagonisms could not be resolved within its structure. Thus, the contradictions inherent in capitalism and its accompanying socio-political structures would bring class conflict to its ultimate realization. As capitalism develops, the workforce is concentrated in large factories where production becomes a social enterprise and thus illuminates the exploitation of the proletariat and its shared grievances. The increasing use of machinery would result in a homogeneous class since such technology brings a leveling process of deskilling, enhancing a sense of common experience, and engendering an increasing sense of alienation.

Marx believed that the class struggle that would overthrow the capitalist order would ensure that private property would be replaced by communally owned property, though industrial manufacture would remain as the basic modus operandi of production in the new society, communally owned but at a higher level of technological development. Since history is about class struggle, history would eventually come to an end. The socialist society that would replace capitalism would contain no dialectical contradictions, while, in effect, the working class would abolish itself.


  1. Darendorf, R. (1959) Class and Class Conflict in Industrial Society. Routledge & Kegan Paul, London.
  2. Marx, K. & Engels, F. (1977) [1848] The communist manifesto. In: McLellan, D. (ed.), Karl Marx: Selected Writings. Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp. 221—16.

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