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Marx and Class Conflict

Marx and Class Conflict

Author: Zach Lamb

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

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Source: Intro Music by Mark Hannan; Public Domain

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[MUSIC PLAYING] Hello. Welcome to Sociological Studies. I've been waiting to give this lecture. It's on Marx and class conflict. So reading Marx is really what got me into sociology and stole me, I guess, from economics. I was an economics student. And then, you know, I'm going to be a sociologist, after reading Marx. And it really made a lot of sense, applying it to society today.

So Marx was really interested in class conflict. And he wrote that class conflict was the history of all societies. Class conflict was really what caused change in society and moved society. And Marx theorized that every society was characterized by one conflict or another, and he was really interested in the class conflicts of industrial capitalism.

Marx was a German in the 1800s, 19th century. And he was able to go out and see capitalism industrializing and see capitalists getting huge amounts of wealth at the expense of workers, laborers, who didn't have wealth. And the only thing they could do was to just go into the factory, work for the capitalist, so the capitalist could get money.

And we didn't have labor laws and regulations, and kids were working. And long hours-- everyone was working long hours. And Marx could go and look at all this happening in the factory. And he saw capitalism as an inherently exploitative system. And he thought it was fundamentally exploitative because ownership-- ownership of the means of production.

The means of production are all of the inputs used to produce commodities, things like the factory, things like the machine, things like the money to afford all of this. These are the means of production. And the means of production were owned by the capitalist class, also called the bourgeoisie, fancy French term for owners of the means of production, the capitalists.

On the other hand, we had the proletariat or the laborers. And proletariat were those who only had their labor to sell. They didn't have any commodity. They didn't have any ownership of the means of production. They only had their body. I could only bring you my body here, capitalist. This is all I have. Buy me. Put me in your factory.

So Marx theorized then that this is a social relationship between the capitalist and the laborer, grounded in the means of production, grounded in differential ownership. And the capitalist could then exploit the proletariat within the factory and produce wealth for themselves at the expense of the proletariat. So this was the fundamental class conflict in industrial capitalism, Marx argued.

And Marx theorized this formula to explain the fundamental exploitation in capitalism and the fundamental class conflict. M-C-M prime-- Money, Commodity, more Money. So what this means then is that the capitalist, the bourgeoisie, has some money up front, which they invest in the means of production.

Suppose a capitalist wants to produce computers. So, a far departure from Marx's time, but let's bring it up to date. Suppose the capitalist wants to produce some computers.

Well, he's going to buy the land. He's going to build his factory. He's going to buy everything he needs to make the computers, all of the machines. He's going to buy all of the parts for the computers. And then he's going to buy some labor, some human labor, to produce them. So this is all the commodities.

He buys that, buys the commodities, and then sells the commodities in a market with the hopes of producing more money, a greater amount of money, money prime, that gets then reinvested back in. And what's happening is that the laborers in the middle, the commodity-- they're selling their labor-- are not getting their fair share of the profits. They're being exploited in the production process to aggrandize the wealth of the capitalist.

And this was going to lead to a revolution, Marx theorized. This was a horribly corrosive social system, Marx maintained, that could only last for so long before the proletariat would get a revolutionary consciousness, aim their animosity at the capitalist for exploiting them, condemning them to this horrible life because they didn't have the means of production. And so then they would overthrow the capitalists, and we would have a socialist revolution and social change. So this fit into Marx's scheme that class conflict was the motor of history. Class conflict is what drives change in society.

In addition, this system, Marx felt, produced alienation amongst the laborers because they were alienated from the products of their labor. Before capitalism, we were artisanal producers. We would go out and produce hammers, or we would produce butter. Or we had a more direct contact. We owned our labor. We didn't have to sell it to somebody, and then we had more control over what we produced.

But in capitalism, that thing changes. We then go into the factory, where we'll work for a while, produce shirts, and then we leave. And we don't really have that product. It's not ours. It belongs to the capitalist, not us.

So Marx theorized that we were then powerless relative to the capitalist with respect to the products of our labor. And we were then alienated from our labor and even from each other. So alienation then is a feeling of estrangement and disassociation from something-- our labor, the products of our labor-- resulting from a situation of powerlessness.

But yet, we never had a revolution in the Marxian sense. And it seems unlikely, but nonetheless, inequality in American society has increased a lot since 1970 to today. Look at the 99% and 1% movement. This is a recognition of fundamental inequalities in society. Although it's not talked about in Marxist terms like means of production, bourgeoisie, proletariat, it's a recognition of fundamental inequality nonetheless.

Real wages have stagnated, real wages meaning adjusted for inflation, what we each and all bring home at the end of the day. That has flat lined since 1970. At the same time, a growing group at the top has been able to increase their wealth based upon new opportunities opened up with the globalization of the economy. And people are recognizing it. All of political discourse is, how do we get jobs back to the middle class? How do we improve the middle class?

And at the same time, you've got the environment. The condition of the environment is worsening. People are responding to that. People are taking charge against their food being produced in industrial foods systems.

So we have then a system that is getting more unequal, harder to legitimize the existing status quo, given the inequality. So we won't have a revolution, but we are having people coming out, recognizing the fundamental inequality, and pointing their finger at the system. I hope you thoroughly enjoyed this introduction to Marx and class conflict. I enjoyed teaching it. Have a great rest of your day.

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.