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Social class conflict, frequently referred to as Social class warfare or Social class struggle, is the tension or antagonism which exists in society due to competing socioeconomic interests and desires between people of different classes.

Social Class conflict can take many different forms: direct violence, such as wars fought for resources and cheap labor; indirect violence, such as deaths from poverty, starvation, illness 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 capitalism) or unintentionally (as with the promotion of consumerism through advertising). Additionally, political forms of class conflict exist; legally or illegally lobbying or bribing government leaders for passage of partisan desirable legislation including labor laws, tax codes, consumer laws, acts of congress or other sanction, injunction or tariff. The conflict 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.


File:Battle strike 1934.jpg

Teamsters wild-cat strike in Minneapolis, 1934

In the past the term Class conflict was a term used mostly by socialists, who 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 labor is a contest between classes, and the division of these resources necessarily involves conflict and inflicts harm. (Marx, 1848) However, in more contemporary times this term is striking chords and finding new definition amongst capitalistic societies in the United States and other Westernized countries.

Marxists argue that class conflict plays a pivotal role in the history of class-based hierarchical systems such as capitalism and feudalism.[1] Marxists 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 plutocratic capitalism.

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 insistence on the 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 Friedrich Engels' 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]

21st Century USA

Predicated on the proposed tax legislation aimed at the wealthy in the USA, conservative news hosts and talk-show commentators are bringing pejorative application to the term class warfare. Perhaps an ad hominem attack on the man who reintroduced the term to main-stream America, Warren Buffett, the term in its classic sense, is now being used to describe President Obama's efforts to create the Buffett Rule. The rule would set a minimum effective tax rate of 30% for those individuals making over $1 million USD annually. FOX News Business Network anchor and investor Eric Bolling, Fox News commentator Steve Moore, political and legal analyst for Fox News Channel Andrew Napolitano, and former speech writer for President George W. Bush, Marc Thiessen have all used the words class warfare to describe the tax initiative.[4]

In response fellow billionaire and friend to Warren Buffett, George Soros addresses the pejorative use of the term by the conservative-right by stating, "Speaking as a person who would be most hurt by this, I think my fellow hedge fund managers call this class warfare because they don't like to pay more taxes."[5]

The USA and similar societies

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.[6]

File:Warren Buffett KU Visit.jpg

Philanthropist and billionaire Warren Buffett acknowledging war on the middle-class in the USA

In the USA class conflict is often noted in labor/management disputes. As far back as 1933 representative Edward Hamilton of ALPA, the Airline Pilot's Association, used the term "class warfare" to describe airline management's opposition at the National Labor Board hearings in October of that year.[7] 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. (Zinn, People's History)

Thomas Jefferson, USA

Although Thomas Jefferson (1744–1826) led the United States as president from 1801–1809 and is considered one of the founding fathers, he died with immense amounts of debt. About class warfare, Thomas Jefferson is quoted as saying, "Experience demands that man is the only animal which devours his own kind, for I can apply no milder term to the general prey of the rich on the poor." [8]

Warren Buffett, USA

In 2012, and the years leading up to it, renowned investor and philanthropist Warren Buffett has often found himself on the list of the top 10 wealthiest men in the world. In November 2006 Buffett commented in an interview with The New York Times, "There’s class warfare all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.[9]" Shortly after issuing the quote Warren gave away more than half of his fortune to charitable causes through a program developed by himself and computer software tycoon Bill Gates.[10] Later in 2011 Buffett called on government legislators to, "...stop coddling the super rich."[11]

Max Weber, Germany

Max Weber (1864–1920) agrees with the fundamental ideas of Karl Marx about the economy causing class conflict, but claims that class conflict can also stem from prestige and power.[12] 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.[12] 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.[12] 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.[12] Weber does not believe that communities are formed by economic standing, but by similar social prestige.[12] Weber does recognize that there is a relationship between social status, social prestige and classes.[12]

Muslim societies (Arab Spring)

Numerous factors have culminated in what's known as the Arab Spring. Agenda behind the civil unrest, and the ultimate overthrow of totalitarian governments throughout the Middle-East included issues such as dictatorship or absolute monarchy, human rights violations, government corruption (demonstrated by Wikileaks diplomatic cables),[13] economic decline, unemployment, extreme poverty, and a number of demographic structural factors,[14] such as a large percentage of educated but dissatisfied youth within the population.[15] Also, some, like Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek attribute the 2009 Iranian protests as one of the reasons behind the Arab Spring.[16] The catalysts for the revolts in all Northern African and Persian Gulf countries have been the concentration of wealth in the hands of autocrats in power for decades, insufficient transparency of its redistribution, corruption, and especially the refusal of the youth to accept the status quo.[17][18] as they involve threats to food security worldwide and prices that approach levels of the 2007–2008 world food price crisis.[19] Amnesty International singled out Wikileaks' release of US diplomatic cables as a catalyst for the revolts.[20]

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".[21] --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 or new class societies. (Cliff; Ðilas 1957) Marxism was such a predominate ideological power in what became the Soviet Union since a Marxist group known as the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party was formed in the country, prior to 1917. This party soon divided into two main factions; the Bolsheviks, who were led by Vladimir Lenin, and the Mensheviks, who were led by Julius Martov.

Marxist perspectives

File:Karl Marx 001.jpg

Karl Marx, 1875

Karl Marx (1818–1883) was a German born philosopher who lived the majority of his adult life in England. In The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx argued that a class is formed when its members achieve class consciousness and solidarity.[12] 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.

What Marx points out is that members of each of the two main classes have interests in common. These class or collective interests are in conflict with those of the other class as a whole. This in turn leads to conflict between individual members of different classes.

Marxist analysis of society identifies two main social groups:

  • Labour (the proletariat or workers) includes anyone who earns their livelihood by selling their labor power and being paid a wage or salary for their labor time. They have little choice but to work for capital, since they typically have no independent way to survive.
  • Capital (the bourgeoisie or capitalists) includes anyone who gets their income not from labor as much as from the surplus value they appropriate from the workers who create wealth. The income of the capitalists, therefore, is based on their exploitation of the workers (proletariat).

Not all class struggle is violent or necessarily radical, as with strikes and lockouts. Class antagonism may instead be expressed as low worker morale, minor sabotage and pilferage, and individual workers' abuse of petty authority and hoarding of information. It may also be expressed on a larger scale by support for socialist or populist parties. On the employers' side, the use of union busting legal firms and the lobbying for anti-union laws are forms of class struggle.

Not all class struggle is a threat to capitalism, or even to the authority of an individual capitalist. A narrow struggle for higher wages by a small sector of the working-class, what is often called "economism", hardly threatens the status quo. In fact, by applying the craft-union tactics of excluding other workers from skilled trades, an economistic struggle may even weaken the working class as a whole by dividing it. Class struggle becomes more important in the historical process as it becomes more general, as industries are organized rather than crafts, as workers' class consciousness rises, and as they self-organize away from political parties. Marx referred to this as the progress of the proletariat from being a class "in itself", a position in the social structure, to being one "for itself",an active and conscious force that could change the world.

Marx largely focuses on the capital industrialist society as the source of social stratification, which ultimately results in class conflict.[12] He states that capitalism creates a division between classes which can largely be seen in manufacturing factories. 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 de-skills and alienates workers as they are no longer viewed as having a specialized skill.[12] 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.[12] The mode of production would remain, but communal ownership would eliminate class conflict.[12]

Even after a revolution, the two classes would struggle, but eventually the struggle would recede and the classes dissolve. As class boundaries broke down, the state apparatus would wither away. According to Marx, the main task of any state apparatus is to uphold the power of the ruling class; but without any classes there would be no need for a state. That would lead to the classless, stateless communist society.

Non-Marxist perspectives

Template:Expand section Social commentators, historians and socialist theorists had commented on class struggle for some time before Marx, as well as the connection between class struggle, property, and law: Augustin Thierry,[22] François Guizot, François-Auguste Mignet and Adolphe Thiers. The Physiocrats, David Ricardo, and after Marx, Henry George noted the inelastic supply of land and argued that this created certain privileges (economic rent) for landowners. According to the historian Arnold Toynbee, stratification along lines of class appears only within civilizations, and furthermore only appears during the process of a civilization's decline while not characterizing the growth phase of a civilization.[23]

Proudhon, in What is Property? (1840) states that "certain classes do not relish investigation into the pretended titles to property, and its fabulous and perhaps scandalous history."[24]

Fascists have often opposed class struggle and instead have attempted to appeal to the working class while promising to preserve the existing social classes and have proposed an alternative concept known as class collaboration.

Class vs. race struggle


Jobless Black workers in the heat of the Philadelphia summer, 1973

According to Michel Foucault, in the 19th century the essentialist notion of the "race" was incorporated by racists, biologists, and eugenicists, who gave it the modern sense of "biological race" which was then integrated to "state racism". On the other hand, Foucault claims that when Marxists developed their concept of "class struggle", they were partly inspired by the older, non-biological notions of the "race" and the "race struggle". In a letter to Friedrich Engels in 1882 Karl Marx wrote: You know very well where we found our idea of class struggle; we found it in the work of the French historians who talked about the race struggle.[25] For Foucault, the theme of social war provides the overriding principle that connects class and race struggle.[26]

Moses Hess, an important theoretician of the early socialist movement, in his "Epilogue" to "Rome and Jerusalem" argued that "the race struggle is primary, the class struggle secondary... With the cessation of race antagonism, the class struggle will also come to a standstill. The equalization of all classes of society will necessarily follow the emancipation of all the races, for it will ultimately become a scientific question of social economics."[27]

In modern times, emerging schools of thought in the U.S. and other countries hold the opposite to be true.[28] They argue that the race struggle is less important, because the primary struggle is that of class since labor of all races face the same problems and injustices. The main example given is the United States, which has the most politically weak working class of any developed nation, where race is held as a distraction that has kept labor divided and unorganized.[29]


Riots with a basically nationalist background are not included.

Classical antiquity

  • Conflict of the Orders
  • Roman Servile Wars

Middle Ages

  • Ciompi in Florence 1378
  • Jacquerie - France 14th century

Modern era

  • German Peasants' War since 1524
  • English Civil War (1642–1651) (Diggers)
  • French Revolution since 1789[30]
  • Canut revolts in Lyon since 1831 - often considered as the beginning of the modern labor movement
  • Revolutions of 1848 France (et al.)
  • Paris Commune 1871
  • Donghak Peasant Revolution in Korea 1893/94
  • 1907 Romanian Peasants' Revolt
  • Mexican Revolution since 1910
  • October Revolution in 1917
  • Spartacist uprising in Germany 1919
  • Seattle General Strike of 1919 in Seattle
  • General Strike of 1919 in Spain
  • Winnipeg General Strike 1919
  • Ruhr Uprising in Germany 1920
  • Kronstadt rebellion 1921
  • Hamburg Uprising 1923
  • 1926 United Kingdom general strike
  • 1934 West Coast waterfront strike
  • Spanish Civil War 1936-1939
  • Uprising of 1953 in East Germany
  • Cuban Revolution 1953-1959
  • Hungarian Revolution of 1956 - foundation of worker's councils
  • Poznań 1956 protests
  • Mai 68 in France
  • Battle of Valle Giulia 1968 Italy
  • Wild cats in Western Germany in 1969
  • Winter of Discontent 1978/79
  • UK miners' strike (1984–1985)
  • 1993 Russian constitutional crisis
  • 2006 Oaxaca protests in Mexico
  • 2008 Greek riots
  • 2010 Kyrgyzstani uprising
  • Egyptian Revolution of 2011
  • 2011 England riots

See also

Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to:


  1. Marx, Karl; and others (1848). The Communist Manifesto, [1]:
  2. Frederick Engels, German Peasants War,
  3. Peter Kropotkin, Mutual Aid
  4. Fox Cries Class Warfare. April 13, 2012. Fox News. URL accessed on 24 May 2012.
  5. includeonly>Sahadi, Jeanne. "Soros: Why I Support the Buffett Rule", April 12, 2012. Retrieved on 24 May 2012.
  6. Greg Palast, Burn baby burn
  7. Kaps, Robert W. (1997). Air Transport Labor Relations, 51, Section 3: Major Collective Bargaining Legislation: Southern Illinois Press.
  8. Jefferson, Thomas On Class Warfare.
  9. includeonly>Buffett, Warren. "Market Watch", Nov. 1, 2011.
  10. includeonly>"Warren Buffett Gives Away Fortune", 4/12/2012. Retrieved on 16 May 2012.
  11. includeonly>Buffett, Warren. "Stop Coddling the Super Rich", Nov. 2011. Retrieved on 16 May 2012.
  12. 12.00 12.01 12.02 12.03 12.04 12.05 12.06 12.07 12.08 12.09 12.10 Blackwell Reference Online.[2]. Retrieved November 24, 2008.
  13. Cockburn, Alexander The Tweet and Revolution.
  14. Korotayev A, Zinkina J (2011). Egyptian Revolution: A Demographic Structural Analysis. Entelequia. Revista Interdisciplinar 13: 139–165.
  15. Demographics of the Arab League, computed by Wolfram Alpha.
  16. Ahmadinejad row with Khamenei intensifies. Al Jazeera.
  17. Ecker, Al-Riffai, Perrihan Economics of the Arab awakening. International Food Policy Research Institute. URL accessed on 25 May 2012.
  18. The Other Arab Spring April 7, 2012 Thomas L. Friedman New York Times Op Ed
  19. includeonly>Javid, Salman Ansari. "Arab dictatorships inundated by food price protests", 27 January 2011. Retrieved on 13 February 2011.
  20. Peter Walker Amnesty International hails WikiLeaks and Guardian as Arab spring 'catalysts', in The Guardian, Friday 13 May 2011
  21. Đilas, Milovan (1983, 1957). The New Class: An Analysis of the Communist System, paperback, San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
  22. Augustin Thierry: Recueil des monuments inédits de l'histoire du Tiers état
  23. Toynbee, Arnold (1947). "The Nature of Disintegration" Dorothea Grace Somervell A Study of History: Abridgment of Volumes I - VI (in English), New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
  24. Pierre Proudhon, What is Property?, chapter 2, remark 2.
  25. Quoted in Society Must be Defended by Michel Foucault (trans. David Macey), London: Allen Lane, Penguin Press (1976, 2003), p. 79
  26. Ann Laura Stoler, Race and the Education of Desire: Foucault's "History of Sexuality" and the Colonial Order of Things , Duke University Press (1995), p.71-72
  27. quoted in Prophecy and Politics: Socialism, Nationalism, and the Russian Jews by Jonathan Frankel, Cambridge University Press (1981), p. 22.
  28. (1995) "Chapter 3: Ye Are the Salt of the Earth" The Wonder of Grace, Shippensburg, Pennsylvania: Companion Press. "The system that was supposed to treat all men equally actually created a class society."
  29. The Tavis Smiley Show/NPR, various interviews.
  30. see Daniel Guérin, Class Struggle in the First French Republic, Pluto Press 1977

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
  • The International Encyclopedia of Revolution and Protest: 1500 to the Present, ed. by Immanuel Ness, Malden, MA [etc.]: Wiley & Sons, 2009.
  • Louis Adamic, Dynamite: The story of class violence in America, Revised Edition (1934)
  • Leo Zeilig (Editor), Class Struggle and Resistance in Africa, New Clarion Press, 2002.
  • Gerson Antell/Walter Harris, "Economics For Everybody", Amsco School Publications, 2007

External links

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