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Class conflict (also class warfare and class struggle) is the political tension and economic antagonism that exists in society consequent to socio-economic competition among the social classes. As a means of effecting radical social and political changes for the social majority, class struggle is a central tenet of the philosophic works of Karl Marx and Mikhail Bakunin.
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 the pulling of an important investment; or ideologically, such as with books and articles. Additionally, political forms of class conflict exist; legally or illegally lobbying or bribing government leaders for passage of desirable partisan legislation including labor laws, tax codes, consumer laws, acts of congress or other sanction, injunction or tariff. The conflict can be direct, as with a lockout aimed at destroying a labor union, or indirect, as with an informal slowdown in production protesting low wages by workers or unfair labor practices by capital.
- 1 Usage
- 2 Capitalist societies
- 3 Socialism
- 4 Chronology
- 5 See also
- 6 References
- 7 Further reading
- 8 External links
In the past the term class conflict was a term used mostly by socialists and Marxists, 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. It can involve ongoing low-level clashes, escalate into massive confrontations, and in some cases, lead to the overall defeat of one of the contending classes. 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.
The anarchist Mikhail Bakunin argued that the class struggle of the working class, peasantry and poor had the potential to lead a social revolution involving the overthrow of ruling elites, and the creation of libertarian socialism. This was only a potential, and class struggle was, he argued, not always the only or decisive factor in society, but it was central. By contrast, Marxists argue that class conflict always plays the decisive and pivotal role in the history of class-based hierarchical systems such as capitalism and feudalism. 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.
Where societies are socially divided based on status, wealth, or control of social production and distribution, class structures arise and are thus coeval with civilization itself. It is well documented since at least European Classical Antiquity (Conflict of the Orders, Spartacus, etc.) and the various popular uprisings in late medieval Europe and elsewhere.
One of the earliest analysis of these conflicts is Friedrich Engels' The Peasant War in Germany. 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 or hunter-gatherer societies, and how inheritance produces early class divisions and conflict.
21st-century United States
Bill Moyers, for example, gave a speech at Brennan Center for Justice in December 2013 which was titled "The Great American Class War," referring to the current struggle between democracy and plutocracy in the U.S. Chris Hedges wrote a column for Truthdig called "Let's Get This Class War Started," which was a play on Pink's song "Let's Get This Party Started."
Historian Steve Fraser, author of The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power, asserts that class conflict is an inevitability if current political and economic conditions continue, noting that “people are increasingly fed up… their voices are not being heard. And I think that can only go on for so long without there being more and more outbreaks of what used to be called class struggle, class warfare.”
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, division of profits, 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. 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. 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, United States
Although Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) led the United States as president from 1801–1809 and is considered one of the founding fathers, he died with immense amounts of debt. Regarding the interaction between social classes, he wrote,
I am convinced that those societies (as the Indians) which live without government enjoy in their general mass an infinitely greater degree of happiness than those who live under the European governments. Among the former, public opinion is in the place of law, & restrains morals as powerfully as laws ever did anywhere. Among the latter, under pretence of governing they have divided their nations into two classes, wolves & sheep. I do not exaggerate. This is a true picture of Europe. Cherish therefore the spirit of our people, and keep alive their attention. Do not be too severe upon their errors, but reclaim them by enlightening them. If once they become inattentive to the public affairs, you & I, & Congress & Assemblies, judges & governors shall all become wolves. It seems to be the law of our general nature, in spite of individual exceptions; and experience declares that man is the only animal which devours his own kind, for I can apply no milder term to the governments of Europe, and to the general prey of the rich on the poor.— Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Edward Carrington - January 16, 1787
Warren Buffett, United States
The investor, and billionaire , and philanthropist Warren Buffett, one of the 10 wealthiest persons in the world, voiced in 2005 and once more in 2006 his view that his class – the "rich class" – is waging class warfare on the rest of society. In 2005 Buffet said to CNN: "It's class warfare, my class is winning, but they shouldn't be." In a November 2006 interview in The New York Times, Buffett stated that "[t]here’s class warfare all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning." Later Warren gave away more than half of his fortune to charitable causes through a program developed by himself and computer software tycoon Bill Gates. In 2011 Buffett called on government legislators to, "...stop coddling the super rich."
Well, there’s always a class war going on. The United States, to an unusual extent, is a business-run society, more so than others. The business classes are very class-conscious—they’re constantly fighting a bitter class war to improve their power and diminish opposition. Occasionally this is recognized... The enormous benefits given to the very wealthy, the privileges for the very wealthy here, are way beyond those of other comparable societies and are part of the ongoing class war. Take a look at CEO salaries....
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. 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. 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. 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. Weber does not believe that communities are formed by economic standing, but by similar social prestige. Weber does recognize that there is a relationship between social status, social prestige and classes.
Numerous factors have culminated in what's known as the Arab Spring. Agenda behind the civil unrest, and the ultimate overthrow of authoritarian governments throughout the Middle-East included issues such as dictatorship or absolute monarchy, human rights violations, government corruption (demonstrated by Wikileaks diplomatic cables), economic decline, unemployment, extreme poverty, and a number of demographic structural factors, such as a large percentage of educated but dissatisfied youth within the population. Also, some, like Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek attribute the 2009 Iranian protests as one of the reasons behind the Arab Spring. 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. as they involve threats to food security worldwide and prices that approach levels of the 2007–2008 world food price crisis. Amnesty International singled out WikiLeaks' release of US diplomatic cables as a catalyst for the revolts.
Karl Marx (1818–1883) was a German born philosopher who lived the majority of his adult life in London, England. In The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx argued that a class is formed when its members achieve class consciousness and solidarity. 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. 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. 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. The mode of production would remain, but communal ownership would eliminate class conflict.
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.
The Soviet Union and similar societies
A variety of predominantly Trotskyist and anarchist thinkers argue that class conflict existed in Soviet-style societies. Their 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", that controls and guides 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 by them as state socialism, state capitalism, 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.
However, many Marxist argue that unlike in capitalism the Soviet elites did not own the means of production, or generated surplus value for their personal wealth like in capitalism as the generated profit from the economy was equally distributed into Soviet society. Even some Trotskyist like Ernest Mandel criticized the concept of a new ruling class as an oxymoron, saying: "The hypothesis of the bureaucracy’s being a new ruling class leads to the conclusion that, for the first time in history, we are confronted with a “ruling class” which does not exist as a class before it actually rules."
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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, 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.
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." While Proudhon saw the solution as the lower classes forming an alternative, solidarity economy centered on cooperatives and self-managed workplaces, which would slowly undermine and replace capitalist class society, the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, while influenced by Proudhon, insisted that a massive class struggle by the working class, peasantry and poor was essential to the creation of libertarian socialism. This would require a (final) showdown in the form of a social revolution.
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.
Riots with a basically nationalist background are not included.
- The Gracchi Tribuneship
- Social War (91–88 BC)
- Gallic Wars and the assassination of Julius Caesar, according to Michael Parenti
- Conflict of the Orders
- Roman Servile Wars
- Ciompi in Florence 1378
- Peasants' Revolt in England 1381
- Jacquerie - France 14th century
- Saint George's Night Uprising
- German Peasants' War since 1524
- English Civil War (1642–1651) (Diggers)
- French Revolution since 1789
- Canut revolts in Lyon since 1831 - often considered as the beginning of the modern labor movement
- Revolutions of 1848 France (et al.)
- Newport Rising political revolt in 1839 led by Chartists.
- Paris Commune 1871
- Donghak Peasant Revolution in Korea 1893/94
- 1905 Russian Revolution
- 1907 Romanian Peasants' Revolt
- Mexican Revolution since 1910
- October Revolution in 1917
- Limerick Soviet in Ireland 1919
- 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
- Mass killings of landlords under Mao Zedong 1947-1950
- Uprising of 1953 in East Germany
- Telangana Rebellion
- 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
- May 1968 events in France
- Wild cats in Western Germany in 1969
- Several strikes by coal miners in the UK:
- Winter of Discontent 1978/79
- Nicaraguan Revolution
- 1993 Russian constitutional crisis
- 2006 Oaxaca protests in Mexico
- Bolivarian Revolution
- 2008 Greek riots
- Kyrgyz Revolution of 2010
- Egyptian Revolution of 2011
- 2011 England riots
- World Social Forum
- World Economic Forum
- Occupy Wall Street
- Jasic Incident
- Rojava Revolution
- Class consciousness
- Class collaboration
- Classless society
- Conflict of the Orders
- Deformed workers state
- Degenerated workers state
- Economic inequality
- Economic stratification
- Green Mountain Anarchist Collective
- Johnson County War
- Labor union
- No War But The Class War
- Occupy movement
- Popular revolt in late medieval Europe
- Propaganda of the deed
- Slave rebellion
- Social class
- Socialist Harmonious Society
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- Pierre Proudhon, What is Property?, chapter 2, remark 2.
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- Blair Community Center and Museum to help preserve and understand the largest labor uprising in US history—the Battle of Blair Mountain.
- Let’s Get This Class War Started. Chris Hedges, Truthdig.
- How a Real Class War, Like with Guns, Could Actually Happen. Vice, November 26, 2018.