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Marx and Class Conflict

Marx and Class Conflict

Author: Paul Hannan

Identify the key components of Karl Marx's theory of class conflict. 

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Source: Intro Music by Mark Hannan; Public Domain, Images from, Public Domain

Video Transcription

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[MUSIC PLAYING] Welcome to this episode of Sociology, Studies of Society. Today's lesson is on Marx and class conflict. As always, don't be afraid to pause, stop, and rewind, or even fast forward, to make sure you get the most out of this tutorial.

Today, we're going to be looking at the ideas of Karl Marx and how that ties in with class conflict. So, as we look at Marx's theory here, let's just place it within one of the three major approaches we learned earlier that you've learned from other places earlier. We're going to place it under the social conflict approach. So, again, this social conflict approach is one that really sees society as a place where there's a conflict, there's a battle for resources. And this battle for resources, there are social structures in place that help some and really limit others.

So, specifically, let's look at Karl Marx. So Karl Marx, 1818 to 1883, really, really intelligent person. Had his fingers in all different sorts of ideas. We think about him as a philosopher, sociologist, an economist. Many different things he was into. He didn't actually even like to classify himself as anything. But many different fields have taken Karl Marx's ideas and his criticism of society and applied them.

So specifically to Karl Marx idea, he saw in society, the biggest problem really was the economic class problem. And he divided this problem into two different ways, and he had the owners and the workers. And I'm going to explain in the next slide a little bit more in detail what those mean exactly and how there's a conflict but there's this is basic division between the owners and the workers.

Lastly, he said that revolution is really a key component to society. So he saw that when inequalities in these economic classes got so big, he thought it was really important for societies to be able to revolt and overthrow that power, and redistribute wealth and minimize social inequality. And a term that kind of fits closely in with this but it's not actually Marxist term is class conflict. And a class conflict is just tension between social classes due to the distribution of wealth and power.

Actually, in our current society, there's been some issues surrounding class conflict. The Occupy Movement of the years around 2011 really was accentuating the difference of power and wealth between the classes, the ultra elite, that 1% of society that are very wealthy, and the rest of people in society. And so when people talk about a class conflict or potential class conflict, it can be any time that this tension between the classes is really rising and coming to a head.

Karl Marx divided up people into two different groups. We have the bourgeoisie. They're also known as the capitalists, and these are people that own the means of production. And if you don't know what means of production is, I have that on the screen there for your there. So means of production are the resources needed for creating and manufacturing.

A good way to think about this is the bourgeoisie, the capitalist, they own the factory that other people work at. They own the apartment building which people rent from them. They are the owners of the ability to make stuff. So they don't actually have to do the making. They pay other people to do the making for them. They're the owners.

The other part of society, the majority of the society, is the proletariat. And these people are the workers. They're the wage earners. So they're paid by the bourgeoisie wages to do work, to make cars, to teach children. They do not own the means of production. So they don't own the machine that makes the shirts. They work the machine that makes the shirts.

One component of that differentiation of society is that the owners have all the power. And that's where this class conflict and this-- that's why Marx saw that the biggest issue really was this difference in the two classes here. And so the people, the workers, they can suffer in a lot of ways, and one of the ways they suffer is alienation.

Now, alienation, just in general, just means when you're separated from a group and you're isolated from an activity or society. Marx's thinking about it specifically, it's when you're feeling that way emotionally because you are powerless, because the system that is in place, you as a proletariat worker, do not have any power, and so you start to become isolated from society and you feel helpless. Think about it being an emotional state based on the structures of modern capitalist society.

So today's take away message. Today, we looked at Karl Marx, who's a German philosopher who studied the economic consequences of capitalism. And something that tied really close into these ideas is the idea of class conflict, which is a tension between social classes due to the distribution of wealth and power. Marx divided up society into two different groups-- the capitalist, or the bourgeoisie, and the proletariat. The capitalists are the people who own the means of production. So they own the resources needed to create and make things.

And the proletariat are the workers. These people get paid by the capitalists to make stuff. They're the wage earners. And proletariat can suffer from alienation, which is a separation and isolation from a group activity, and it's really based on, again, that emotional feeling of powerlessness from the structure of capitalism. Well, that's for this lesson. Good work. And, hopefully, you'll be seeing me on your screen again soon. Peace.

Terms to Know

Separation from a group, activity, or society.

Capitalist (Bourgeoisie)

Also known as the bourgeoisie, these people are the owners of the means of production.

Class Conflict

Antagonism between social classes.

Means of Production

The raw materials, machines, inputs, and factories used in the act of commodity production.


Common laborers who do not own the means of production, only their labor.

People to Know
Karl Marx

Nineteenth century German philosopher who studied the economic and social consequences of the rise of industrial capitalism. Marx has had a profound impact on the development of many social science disciplines, including sociology. In particular, his work is often cited as the foundation of much of the conflict theoretical tradition in sociology.