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Class conflict is both the friction that accompanies social relationships between members or groups of different social classes and the underlying tensions or antagonisms which exist in society. Class conflict is thought to play a pivotal role in history of class societies (such as capitalism, feudalism, Soviet-type societies, etc.) by Marxists who refer to its overt manifestations as class struggle. However, regardless of the truth or utility of that theory, conflict between classes exists and is expressed both in daily life and politics.
Sometimes class conflict results in violent struggles, either episodic, such as the Johnson County War in Wyoming in the 19th century, or chronic, such as the atmosphere that prevailed in pre-revolutionary Russia. It can be open, as with a business lockout aimed at destroying a labor union, or it can be hidden, as with an informal slowdown in production that protests low wages or an excessively fast or dangerous work process.
Representing a political group of working people with a common interest, Labour unions and labor-oriented political parties have revolutionised health and safety standards in industrial economies, either directly (by making government policy) or indirectly (by pressuring incumbent politicians).
Classes under capitalism
Class warfare is a term long-used by many socialists (including Marxists and communists, but also anarchists, democratic socialists, etc.) to describe social and political conflicts between classes (groups of people with a different relationship to the means of production, and to each other).
In this view, capitalism consists of two social classes: the wage-workers (the proletariat) and the business owners or capitalists (the bourgeoisie). The wage-workers do not own or have control over the means of production, and must sell their labor-power to the capitalists in order to survive. The capitalists own and control the means of production, and subsist by exploiting the workers.
Therefore, a socio-political imbalance is said to exist between individuals of extreme wealth or power and those with little or no wealth. This imbalance was probably first recognized by Adam Smith:
- "The masters [i.e., employers], being fewer in number, can combine much more easily; and the law, besides, authorises, or at least does not prohibit their combinations, while it prohibits those of the workmen. We have no acts of parliament against combining to lower the price of work; but many against combining to raise it. In all such disputes the masters can hold out much longer. A landlord, a farmer, a master manufacturer, or merchant, though they did not employ a single workman, could generally live a year or two upon the stocks which they have already acquired. Many workmen could not subsist a week, few could subsist a month, and scarce any a year without employment. In the long-run the workman may be as necessary to his master as his master is to him, but the necessity is not so immediate." (The Wealth of Nations, volume I, ch. 8, paragraph 12)
Going beyond Smith, the interests of the wealthy are seen to conflict (often dramatically and violently) with the interests and needs of classes without power.
Corporations are seen to function as a vehicle for combination of individual capitals, transcending the bounds of mortality and liability that accompany an individual-owned enterprise. Arguably, there is little fundamental difference between the class warfare that existed between the Victorian era monarchy and the common public, and a modern corporation and its workers.
In any class society, each of the two main classes has its own divisions, so that neither is monolithic. Concerning capitalism, Marxist theory argues that the working class has both an "objective" class interest as a collective group, and a large number of individual interests of workers. Class interest may thus differ from "trade union consciousness", economism, and the like. Similarly, the capitalist class may be riven by the difference between the long-term collective interest of the class and the profit-seeking of individual capitalists. In a revolutionary situation, convergence of individual interests and class interests is expected; this might be seen as a polarization of society.
The empirical manifestation of class antagonisms depends on the specific (concrete) historical situation in which they operate. For example, other societal divisions -- concerning issues of nationality, ethnicity, religion, language, and gender -- can interact with, confuse, and/or mute class tensions. Sometimes class can be simultaneously moderated by ethnic issues (as between white proletarians and capitalists in apartheid-era South Africa) and intensified by them (as between blacks and whites there).
Class in the Soviet Union and similar societies
Many argue that in a Stalinist dictatorship such as the Soviet Union, the leaders of the ruling party form a powerful bureaucratic stratum -- sometimes termed a "new class" -- that controls the means of production. In many ways, this kind of hierarchy recreated the kind of class antagonisms that were seen as prevailing under capitalism.
Some communists, such as the trotskyists, see this as an essential problem which creates exploitation of a similar kind as the one present in capitalism, and they propose solutions that include a democratic state for the purpose of putting the power over the state (and thus the control of the means of production) in the hands of the people. They reject the idea of "socialism in one country" as a long-lasting situation, so that sooner or later a democratic socialist system would have to be world-wide. However, to avoid establishing new dictatorships, all revolutions would have to come from popular working-class forces rather than being imposed from above or from outside a country.
Other socialist critics of Soviet-style societies, such as the libertarian socialists and the syndicalists, argue that the solution is for factories and offices to be run by the workers who work in them. In this view, merely changing who controls the state is insufficient; the nature of the work process itself must also be changed.
- Class struggle
- Social class
- Slave rebellion
- Economic inequality
- Economic stratification
- Labor union
- No War But The Class War
- Class envy
- Popular revolt in late medieval Europe
- Conflict of the Orders
- Class & Class Conflict in Industrial Society,Ralf Dahrendorf, Stanford University Press, 1959, trade paperback, 336 pages, ISBN 0-80470-5615 (also available in hardback as ISBN 0-80470-5607 and ISBN 1131155734).
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