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Human society is often more complex in terms of formation and organization than that of any other creatures on earth. The genesis of such complexity often varies depending on reasons and circumstances of formations, some of which include protection of property rights, survival, and symbiotic trade relationships among others.
Regardless of the reason for the formation of any society, the element of conflict is always present, precisely because human beings have different perceptions and opinions regarding the procedure of operations in such a society, the superiority element of societal stratification, and the issue of morality and what constitutes right as opposed to wrong. Many philosophers have tried to explain the issue of the occurrence of such conflict according to their perspectives on the constitution of ideal societies.
Karl Marx is one of the most renowned philosophers of all time due to his contribution to the issue of societal structures and the genesis of conflicts. The nineteenth-century philosopher’s works have been the basis for the formation of governments as well as the dissolution of others. In addition, Marx’s works have generated controversy among philosophers who have read his works, some of whom agree with his opinions while others refute them with reasons. This paper constitutes a critical analysis of Karl Marx’s political manifesto, The Communist Manifesto, which he compiled with the help of Frederick Engel in the nineteenth Century, even though it remains relevant to date. The paper’s discussion also includes the opinions of other scholars including that of philosopher Mikhail Bakunin on the principles of Marxism regarding the class conflict.
The Communist Manifesto
The Communist Manifesto was first published in 1848 under the commissioning of the First Communist Political Party, as an activist group whose main agenda was to foster the establishment of communism as a form of governance in continental Europe starting with England. In the manifesto, Marx begins by noting that the society at the time considered communism a specter and that all “the old powers of Europe had entered into a holy alliance to exorcise it” (Marx & Engel, 1948, p.1).
This statement implies that according to Marx, the society thought of communism as a radical idea for which the authorities in power worked hard to quash. Marx also states in the first chapter that the “history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggles” (Marx & Engel, 1948, p.2). He then goes ahead to explain his view on the class conflict by noting two significant classes of people whom he thought made up every society and determined the social and consequently political set up of societies. The division entails the bourgeois and proletarians, whom he later refers to as the oppressor and the oppressed respectively.
Marx’s opinion, as he expresses throughout the manuscript, is that throughout history and in every existing society with the example of Europe, there have always been conflicts in which the ruling class, viz. the bourgeois, always controls the social and consequent political power in society, thus leading to conflict with the working class. He states that often, the conflict occurs in different phases depending on circumstances, most of which entail uninterrupted opposition to one another, sometimes hidden, and other times open, each time ending “either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large or in a common ruin of the contending classes” (Marx & Engel, 1948, p.4).
In Marx’s theory, which has become popularly known as Marxism, the root of the entire conflict lies in the control of wealth and resources, including the redistribution of the same among individuals living in a society. He vulcanizes capitalism by terming it as the tool by which the bourgeois control the social functioning of the society and use such social control to gain and maintain political power with which they make laws that favor their interests.
Marx traces the beginning of such social and political order in the early epochs of history by noting arrangements of people in societies in various orders. By often taking the form of graduating social ranks, he gives examples such as the patricians, knights, and slaves in Rome, where one social class is often subordinate to another. In every case, the ruling or superior class treats the subordinate class with great antagonism.
In Marx’s opinion, the antagonistic nature of relations between classes remains constant even as society changes. With time, societies form “new classes, new conditions of oppression, and new forms of struggle in place of the old ones; however, everything remains essentially the same (Marx & Engel, 1948, p.4). Over the years, social stratification always boils down to ownership of property as people place more value on the amount of money that they have and use it as a means of defining themselves.
According to Marx, by placing the value of people in what they own, society has turned social institutions that once focused on moral accomplishments into business entities, thus resulting in the demise of values such as altruism and chivalry. Self-interest rules the actions and decisions of many including those in power, hence leading to the formulation of laws such as tax laws, property ownership laws, and trade laws that serve personal interests.
He gives the example of free laws on free trade as one of the ways that the rich remain rich and maintain their power to oppress individuals in the working class. In his explanation, he states that the rules of free trade sound appealing to everybody including people in the working class as they give the impression of hope for equality in property ownership. However, an analytical look into the circumstances surrounding free trade reveals that the bourgeoisies have always had an unfair advantage as history provides them with the means with which to obtain and control most of the tradecraft, thus resulting in the stagnation of the working class, who work under the illusion of ascension to power (Markell, 2003).
Marx describes such power ownership by using the analogy of a few individuals over a multitude in the society as a country operating under the rules of a town. The conflict thus takes the form of the working class trying to correct the injustices it perceives in society while the ruling class resists for the purposes of maintaining social control and political power.
An analysis of Marx’s ideology
An analysis of Marx’s theory reveals various aspects that make sense and others that limit the viability of his theory. For instance, Marx’s observation of the existence of social stratification and the presence of antagonism lends credibility to his theory. In most cases, there is always a conflict between job owners and the working class over the rules of engagement and the feeling that the working class is often getting a raw deal. This observation explains the need for the establishment of workers’ unions throughout history to champion the rights of the working class against oppressive rules by job owners (Kreijen, 2002).
Secondly, the link between the ruling class and their wealth status cannot be ignored. In most instances, the wealthy members of society tend to possess political positions that they often keep for a substantial duration. Even in instances where such upper-class individuals do not directly engage in political affairs, their influence concerning the choice of leadership and subsequent policy implementations that protect their interests is undeniable.
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For instance, in modern-day politics, campaigns require sufficient financial stamina in order for candidates to stand out enough to have their visions realized in society. Upper-class individuals, often with business interests to protect, offer financial aid to facilitate successful campaigns for politicians who present manifestos that best represent their interest in exchange for the implementation of the manifestos once in power.
Therefore, even though the ideal aim for most campaigns is public service, the ability of a politician to stand out in society depends on the success of his or her campaign, which in turn depends on funding from the ruling class (Markell, 2003). Overall, the ruling class shortlists the type of leaders to present to society for election to the legislature, while the working class simply chooses one of the few that weighs better than others do in terms of perceivable moral integrity and reliability.
This view also explains why most people complain that leaders change once in power and engage in vices such as corruption and why society fails to change such vices even with the choice of alternative leadership. The element of self-interest and measurement of self-worth in terms of wealth creates a scenario where leaders often lose their way once in leadership and work towards self-progression instead of serving the society’s need (Callcut, 2009).
Finally, Marx’s explanation sheds light on the reasons why social stratification in most societies remains a pertinent issue. Even in developed countries, class stratification is a salient feature in the societal structure, often with the aid of political policy. It is also evident in such circumstances that the element of subordination among the various classifications is a prominent feature and constitutes rules regarding interaction amongst people in society.
For instance, in most cases, communities in various cities exist in an arrangement that complies with social stratification resulting in neighborhoods where the wealthy live in isolation from the working class and the latter from the poor. The economic differences between the classes dictate the terms of segregation in this case, thus leading to situations where the rich are in a position to develop their neighborhoods to suit their needs while the poor and working-class also live persistently within their means in regions where development is stagnant. This realization is one of the reasons why there exist conflicts between the wealthy and the working classes in any society (Sartorious, 2009).
Marx’s opinion is that the wealthy members of any society have the ability to develop the social lives of the working class through political policy. However, they refuse to do so in order to ensure that they have a sufficient labor force to work in industries and companies and generate more income to ensure the status of the wealthy remains consistent. Even in instances where the upper class relaxes rules such as taxes to create financial relief for the working class, the application of the same rules to their own income in the name of equality creates the perception of an unfair advantage.
Parts of Marx’s theory bear striking resemblance to the sentiments of Thomas Hobbes, a seventeenth-century philosopher who is famous for his views on the process and purpose of the formation of the government. His theory creates the impression that government representatives possess more power than the rest of the population and they utilize the power as they deem fit by using the interest of the people as a justification. According to Hobbes, human beings are inherently concerned with self-preservation above all other principles, thus leading to the occurrence of social injustices (Hampton, 1986).
He states that people establish governments as tools by which to remedy such injustices and acquire equal rights that guarantee the survival of every individual as long as they comply with the rules set by their governments. According to his explanation of the theory, in the state of nature, man lives in a constant state of conflict that favors the strong over the weak. In pursuit of self-preservation, human beings form societies, which require them to select an individual or institution comprising a group of individuals to act as leaders. The leaders then formulate rules with which every member of the society must comply (Heywood, 2012). However, this assertion does not mean that the leadership position changes the characteristics that the leaders exhibit as individuals in their state of nature.
One of the elements that Marx borrows from in this theory is the view that the ruling class that forms the leadership in any society possesses more power than the subjects who appear subordinate after the surrender of authority. The second element that stands out in Hobbes’ theory is that man is inherently more concerned with self-preservation than he is with service to society, regardless of possession of power and leadership, both of which create an obligation to act in the best interest of society.
However, even in the light of facts that support Marx’s ideology with regard to class struggle, it has attracted controversy in the past and still does in various aspects. For instance, some scholars argue that class conflict often emanates from a myriad of causes and that Marx’s basis of societal and political formation on capitalism is often lacking. Others still argue that Marx vulcanizes capitalism without giving the benefits of communism to provide contrast and create some objectivity in his ideology.
While some scholars reject his ideas in the manifesto completely, others like Mikhail Bakunin, a philosopher during Marx’s era, pick specific aspects of the manifesto, which they regard as contentious. Bakunin explains his opinion on the aspect of class struggle by citing elements that he finds inadequate or missing in Marx’s theory. His manuscript, Marxism, Freedom, and the State contain much of his insight on the topic of discussion. He is an example of people that Marx inspired during his era. Bakunin ended up developing his own ideas from that which Marxism, as a school of thought, proposes.
Marxism, Freedom, and the State
The manuscript by Mikhail Bakunin was a reactionary paper, which lay the basis of its arguments on Karl Marx’s paper and movement in support of communism. Although Bakunin acknowledged the validity of Marx’s observations regarding class conflict, he disagreed with the way in which Marx chose to deal with the issue and his perception of what constitutes liberty. According to Bakunin (1950), Marxism did not advocate for the true liberation of the working class from the clutches of the bourgeois in European society. He points out that Marx only highlights the problem, but provides a solution that would only cater to motivate the working class to fight for partial rights and freedoms instead of full liberty (Bakunin, 1950).
His issue of contention with the limitation of liberty in Marxism stems from Marx’s suggestion that the ruling class should do what is moral and implement policies that ensure real equality among all members of society. He perceives this idea as naïve and impractical and suggests the annihilation of government as an idea in its stead, as the only means the working class can achieve full liberty. He envisions a society without the government as one without social stratification and one where everyone is his and her own boss.
He posits that he is a “fanatical lover of liberty…considering it as the only medium in which [one] can develop intelligence, dignity and happiness” (Bakunin, 1950, p.2). He further states that the “first condition of humanity is that liberty must establish itself in the world by the spontaneous organization of labor and the collective ownership by productive associations freely organized and federalized in districts, and by the equal and spontaneous federation of districts, but not by supreme and tutelary action of the state” (Bakunin, 1950, p.4)
Bakunin’s opinion mirrors that of John Locke, a prominent proponent of the natural law theory. Locke presents the idea that governments play a passive role in society while the people control its operations. The amount of power that the people entrusted to the governing body or individual is dismal in comparison to that which they keep for themselves, thus leaving them the option of changing the government whenever they feel dissatisfied.
In his version of the natural law theory, man is inherently good and thus he makes decisions that are moral in nature. In the state of nature, people respect each other’s property rights and treat each other with dignity and respect. He also states that due to the intelligent nature of man and varying opinions that each person possesses, some people choose to act in a manner contrary to the conventions. This view necessitates the establishment of a body that can watch over the rights of every individual equally and punish members of society that choose to break the status quo. (Heywood, 2012).
One of the main similarities between Locke’s theory and Bakunin’s ideology is that they both form their opinions on the premise that man is inherently good, happy, and content in the state of nature. Secondly, they both consider man’s power over any governing body to be inherent and superior thus negating the possibility of social stratification as every person is his or her own boss. However, their opinions vary in terms of the need for the establishment of government, as Bakunin champions for the eradication of the concept.
In his view, the establishment of government grants the power of dominance to a few people over others, thus creating a rift that results in permanent social stratification and development of class injustices and subsequent class conflict. Bakunin’s advocacy for the abolition of the state and private ownership of any means of production has earned his philosophy the name ‘collective anarchism’. He considers the liberation of the working class as an inevitable fact.
Bakunin is not the only philosopher who preferred the concept of anarchy to Marxism. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, a French philosopher, developed the concept of spontaneous order in which he envisioned a society with a sufficient level that did not have to rely on a central institution to coordinate activities and create order on its own terms. In his work, What is Property, Proudhon considers the issuance of complete rights to use and abuse one’s property as he or she pleases as theft.
In his opinion, limited ownership of perpetual property and resources for periods when the same is in continuous use should suffice in order to allow everyone access to the benefits that accrue from such continuous usage. He argues that property forms the only hold that the state has over power upon the people and allowing the institution to control such power often results in social stratification, thus creating class conflicts between those who own property and resources and those that claim mutual rights to such property (proletarians) (Heywood, 2012).
Analysis of Bakunin’s ideology
Mikhail Bakunin was born in the year 1814 in the province of Tsar. His father was a retired diplomat from a Russian family of ancient nobility. He spent most of his childhood at his father’s estate before enrolling in the military during his teenage years and he had the chance to experience the life that peasants led a first hand. This element is evident in his work and ideology and possibly, it fueled his fire for liberation.
Bakunin’s concept of complete liberty from the state’s control gained popularity mainly due to its timely introduction during a time when revolutions were imminent in most European states. The Spring of Nations, which was a series of revolutions against existing state governments in Europe, began in February 1848 and ended sometime within the early months of 1849. The event happened a few years after the initiation of the industrial revolution.
The idea of freedom to own property and gain equality with industry and landowners seemed appealing to the working-class population at the time and ignited significant interest in the theories (Scott, 2000). In his manuscript, Bakunin argues that communists consider ideas to produce facts while idealists, including him, consider ideas as the genesis for facts. He explains that proof of the success of his ideology would transform it into a fact.
However, as enticing as the ideology appeared to a majority of the population at the time, the concept exhibits some limitations. One such limitation is the view that social stratification often occurs due to various factors aside from property ownership and control of resources. For instance, Charles Darwin established the concept of survival for the fittest in which he stated that in the state of nature only the strongest survive. Therefore, it is possible that in a stateless society, even with the existence of laws, stratification would take the form of the strong dominating the weak. In such a scenario, the strong would control the resources, while the weak would need to submit to their will in order to survive. In this case, there would be no difference between the condition of the society before and after the abolition of the state.
Secondly, his ideology overlooks the various benefits that governments play in society. According to Locke’s theory, the government serves as an impartial formulator and enforcer of laws for the benefit of everyone in society. The rules to property ownership and distribution of resources apply in exactly the same way to every individual (Callcut, 2009). Therefore, it is up to the aggrieved working-class citizens to figure out ways of advancing their social status through making smart financial decisions.
In addition, laws related to taxation often consider the earnings each class makes in its determination of appropriate tariffs. The more a person gains, the more taxes he or she pays. Such taxes are often applied in the development of social amenities and essential services for working-class individuals at relatively cheaper rates and sometimes free of charge. This aspect enables the affordability of quality amenities that most people in the working class would otherwise lack the financial ability to afford.
The concept of property ownership also serves as one of the main motivations for every person regardless of one’s class, to work harder at whatever profession s/he chooses. Although the element of communal ownership would enable everyone to get a share of property and resources under contention, it would also foster laziness and result in vices such as crime. Additionally, the possibility of the creation of different strata in the society would still exist, as people possess different capacities regarding management.
Some people are comfortable managing large portions of properties and resources, while others prefer smaller portions as they confer fewer responsibilities upon the owners (Lukes, 2008). Bakunin’s suggestion of the ideal nature of a stateless society also overlooks the need for maintenance of order that the state plays. The suggestion of spontaneous order is impractical as people bear different conceptions of what morality should be in essence.
A stateless society provides the opportunity for every individual to play out his or her conception of morality, thus leading to the likelihood of the creation of chaos (Sartorious, 2009). As John Stuart Mills mentions, under the concept of utilitarianism, every individual should have the right to do as he or she pleases as long as such decisions and actions do not affect others negatively in society. However, as there are always disagreements regarding elements that constitute morality, society sets up an institution, viz. the state, to establish essential moral values that appeal to the majority, while allowing everyone to establish any others on his/her own.
For instance, murder qualifies as one of the essential moral vices, and most state governments thus shun it. If Bakunin’s description of the majority consists of the working class, according to Mill, the state often acts in the class’s best interest. The state aims at ensuring the protection of elements of morality that create the greatest pleasure to the greatest majority and reduces pain (Mill & Bentham, 2004).
Karl Marx’s ideology in The Communist Manifesto essentially presents a negative opinion of capitalism and suggests the establishment of communism as a remedy to the situation. In his opinion, social stratification has roots in every society and it often occurs in the form of oppression of the working class by the ruling class, with property and resources as the motivation. He posits that in the European society at the time, the ownership of property and resources was the preserve of a few individuals, viz. the ruling class. Due to its ability to control property, resources, and the benefits that accrue from the two, the ruling class acquired enough influence to control the political arena and facilitate the creation of laws that worked in its favor, to the detriment of the working class.
He explains that the aim of such laws existed to ensure that the ruling class always had a constant labor force, thus negating the possibility of economic independence for the working class. In his view, communism cures capitalism by fostering equality in ownership and eradicating social classes. Mikhail Bakunin supports some of the elements in the Marxist theory but points out one key area, which he states is the main limitation in Marx’s ideology.
In his opinion, Marx’s theory fails to comply with the principle of full liberty by stating the state’s involvement in the liberation process of the working class as a vital ingredient. Bakunin (1950) views the state as part of the problem, and thus he perceives impracticability in the actualization of the Marxist ideology. His version of an ideal society entails spontaneous coordination and order where everyone is his and her own boss. Property and resource ownership is communal, which does not depend on the rules of a single institution.
Although the need for social and economic liberty in both theories stands out as a noble gesture for the creation of both ideologies, the authors fail to provide viable solutions with fewer negative effects than the maintenance of the status quo creates. The happiness of the majority, which is one of the significant elements in both theories, receives support from other philosophers, but both authors fail in its execution. Regardless of the limitations, the manuscripts by both Marx and Bakunin provide good points regarding the development of government and means of reducing class conflict in modern-day societies all over the world.
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Callcut, D. (2009). Mill, sentimentalism, and the problem of moral authority. Utilitas, 21(1), 22-35.
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Heywood, A. (2012). Political Ideologies: An Introduction. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.
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Lukes, S. (2008). Moral Relativism (Big Ideas/ Small Books). London, UK: Picador Publishing.
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