Philosophers describe conflict as the disagreement of authority. According to these philosophers, power can take on different forms depending on the person at the helm. While some form of power might be humane and manipulative, another might as well be coercive and physical. While some people in power might choose to lead in an assertive and bargaining way, others decide to do so in an inductive and rational manner.
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Due to the variations in the forms of power, there is usually the likelihood of manifestation of conflict. In this light, social conflict therefore addresses the confrontation of social powers. Ideally, all social theorists seek to address power or conflict based on social powers and their dialectics. (Cattell, 1957, p. 23)This essay seeks to examine the status of social conflict in the work of both Karl Marx and Max Weber.
According to Marx, the society encompasses an existing balance of opposing forces that give rise to social change by their constant tension and struggle. In presenting his theory, Marx based his vision on an evolutionary point, which was contrary to the theories existing at that time.
For him, tension and struggle rather than passive development was the driving force of progress. Marx considered strife the father of all good things and social conflict the center of chronological progression. This philosophy presented by Marx deviated from earlier versions but corresponded with the 19th century view of society.
According to Marx, the need for adequate food and drink, of housing and for clothing were man’s chief goals at the beginning of the race, and these needs are still fundamental when efforts are made to scrutinize the intricate structure of contemporary society. However, man’s strive against nature does not stop once these pursuits are attained. If translated literally, this statement means that meeting one need gives rise to a host of others and this becomes a sort of a vicious cycle. (Giddens, 1983, p. 101)
In their bid to gratify both the principal and inferior needs, men engage in aggressive cooperation immediately they leave the primeval, shared period of development. According to Marx, specialization brings with it opposition of ideas from the different classes. In his hypotheses, Marx claimed that all social relations between men, as well as the existing systems of ideas are exclusively rooted in the past.
He also maintained that, although class strives, had marked all history, the competitors in the struggle had changed in the course of time. Although there was obviously a similarity between the travelers of the middle ages who fought against guild masters and today’s industrial workers who take on capitalists, the contestants were merely the same characters placed in different situations. (Blau, 1964, p. 23)
For Marx, the analysis of social class, class organizations and modifications are crucial to understanding capitalism and other social structures or means of production. In his theory, work and labor, and ownership of property with the means of production were the only ways that could be used to explain and define classes.
Today’s capitalism according to Marx exhibits these economic factors than in any other period in history. While the previous societies contained alliances that could have been considered classes, these were mere elites who were not wholly based on economic factors. (Bottomore, 1983, p. 96)
According to Marx, capitalism has two major groupings namely the bourgeoisie and proletariat. It is actually important to understand that Marx viewed the structure of society vis-à-vis its major classes, and the resistance between them as the force of alteration in this structure. Indeed, Marx theory was not based on balance or consensus.
Conflict was forever present within the societal structure and the existing classes were not meant to be purposeful elements maintaining the structure. According to Marx, this structure was like a major ingredient in the struggle of classes. Indeed, Marx only sought to explain his conflict view based on his observation of the 19th century society. (Marx, 1971, p. 65)
Marx defined class as simply the possession of property. In his explanation, he claimed that such an ownership gives a person the power to bar other people from the property and to utilize it for personal intentions. By looking at the bourgeoisie, landowners and proletariats, one realizes that their main asset was property and not revenue or status.
Indeed, these are determined by supply and expenditure, which itself definitely replicates the production and power associations of classes. According to Marx, this makes the issue of class a hypothetical and recognized relationship among individuals. In a bid to fit in to one of the three classes, there arises an informal class membership force otherwise known as class interest.
Due to the identical class conditions, individuals in the different classes tend to act in the same manner. This leads them to unconsciously form a kind of reciprocal reliance, a society, and shared interest interconnected with common revenue of yield or of wages. Because of this common interest, what follows is a formation of an interest class meant to protect their property. The formation of the interest classes often leads one group in to a struggle with the opposite group. (Marx, 1971, p. 68)
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Initially, the interests associated with land possession and rental fee are dissimilar to those of the bourgeois property. However, as the society matures, there is usually a merger between capital and land ownership, which in turn forces a coalition between landowners and bourgeoisie.
At the end, the association of production, the natural struggle between proletariat and bourgeoisie ends up being the determinant of all the events that follow. According to Marx, this constant struggle is necessary for any society that is maturing since its absence would ground a society to a halt. At the beginning of class conflict, the struggle between the various classes is usually carried out at individual production units.
As capitalism matures, the rising inequality between the living conditions of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat extends the strife to coalitions across industrial units. With the passage of time, there is a manifestation of class conflict within the societal level. According to Marx, this new level leads to a rise in class-consciousness, which ultimately leads to the clamor for political power. This therefore transforms the existing classes in to political power, which is the other form of class. (Marx, 1971, p. 70)
According to Marx, the spread of political power is determined by the power of production. Production grants political power, which the bourgeois class uses to legalize and safeguard their property and resultant group affairs. Class relations are therefore political and in a mature society, the government is involved with the bourgeoisie affairs. This fact leads to a state of restlessness in the remaining classes something that widens the rift between them even further.
Additionally, the state of the already exploited worker deteriorates further and in most cases, this leads to the collapse of the entire social structure. Ultimately, this transforms the class struggle in to a blue-collar revolution. In effect, this wipes away the existing classes and gives rise to a classless society. With the collapse of classes, the political power needed to protect the bourgeoisie against the laborers becomes obsolete leading to the collapse of political power and the state at large. (Cattell, 1957, p. 5)
Marx’s emphasis on class conflict as representing the dynamics of social change, his consciousness that change was not accidental but the result of a conflict of interests, and his observation of social relations based on political power were new findings in the society. However, the passage of time and history has made most of his suppositions and prophecies obsolete.
Today, capitalist possession and the control of production have been divided. Instead of workers becoming homogenous as Marx predicted, they are now divided in to various specialization groups. On the other hand, the strengthening of the middle class and communal mobility has further weakened the class solidity thus discrediting Marx theory in a large manner.
Instead of there being a big disparity between the rich and the poor, there has been a social intensity and an increasing highlight on social fairness. Finally, the growth of worker-oriented laws has weakened the bourgeoisie power that Marx predicted would characterize the modern society. Most importantly, the demonstration of conflict between laborers and capitalist has been institutionalized through combined negotiation legislation and the validation of strikes.
Despite the exhibit of chronological trends discrediting these theories, Marx’s sociological outlines have much value. Of importance, his highlighting on conflict, classes, and their association to political influence, and on communal alteration was a dominant perspective that the modern society should not abandon. Indeed the spirit, if not the essence of his hypothesis merits further development to guide the modern society. (Giddens, 1983, p. 105)
Marx saw the division of classes as the mainly important foundation of class conflict. Weber’s scrutiny of class is similar to Marx’s, but he discusses class in the framework of social stratification in a more general manner. Weber claims that class and social status are different dimensions of the social structure and both are noteworthy contributors of social difference. In fact, the way Weber treats class and status is an indication of the manner in which the substance basis of society is related to its perception.
Social conflict can therefore be a result of the substance or the ideological basis. Unlike Marx, Weber did not dwell on explaining how class conflict occurs but he highlighted the role of power, domination and societal action in the matter. Weber defines power as the aptitude of an actor to recognize his will in a social action, even against the will of team players. He relates this to the ability to sway resources in a fastidious sphere of influence.
Therefore, economic power is the ability to manage substance resources in order to guide production, dominate accretion and dictate expenditure. Societal power as outlined by Weber includes monetary power, societal power, lawful or political power among other centers of influence. Although controlling these spheres of resources usually go together, they characterize diverse mechanisms of power and are therefore theoretically distinct. (Giddens, 1983, p. 108)
On the other hand, Weber described domination as the implementation of power. Therefore, possessing power in any sphere of life resulted in to automatic dominance. In what he called charismatic domination, Weber claimed that some individuals might use inspiration, coercion, communication or even leadership to direct and coordinate social action. This charisma according to Weber usually emerges during times of social crisis.
Because this leadership tends to be personalized, it is short-lived and does not extend beyond the rule of its founder. In exercising this power, the leader often finds himself in a form of conflict with the subjects. In traditional authority, there is absolute loyalty to the leadership. In most cases, the lines of this authority are almost non-existent and there is no clear differentiation between private and public life. (Shortell, n.d)
In the matter of communal action, Weber claims that it is oriented based on a common conviction of association. In other words, the actors believe that by some means they belong together in a certain way. The actions of these actors come from and are co-coordinated by this feeling. This is in contrast to societal action, which is somehow oriented to a coherent modification of welfare. The motivation is therefore not gotten by a sense of communal rationale, but relatively, identification of common good.
On the issue of class, Weber identified three distinct classes, which included a specific fundamental section of actors, which rests entirely on monetary interests and is embodied under an environment of labor and product markets. According to Weber, the possession of property defines the major class difference. Property owners have explicit advantages and in some cases even a monopoly in the marketing of commodities.
The same property owners have a limited access to the foundations of wealth creation, by virtue of possession and management of the markets. Unlike Marx, Weber did not believe that class interests necessarily led to consistency is social action. Additionally, Weber did not concur with Marx that proletarian revolutionary action would arise because of structural inconsistency.
In certain situations, Weber believed that there was a possibility of societal action developing from a common class situation. This meant that the extent of the contrasts between the property owners and the property less laborers must first be translucent to the laborers in order for communal action around the issue of class to crop up. (Shortell, n.d)
Both Marx and Weber have addressed the status of social conflict albeit in different words. Weber’s view on the status of class conflict was not much different from the one outlined by Marx although both views are stated differently. On his part, Marx discussed the repercussions of class in terms of the substance conditions of survival. He also classified property possession in a definitive manner and in light of capitalist class relations.
Additionally, Marx did not think that the variations in the kind of labor were important though he accepted that specialization had greater value than unskillful labor. On his part, Weber believed that the disparities in wages resulted in considerable substantial conditions thus dissimilar models of social action. Weber’s theory also suggests that rivalry among those without property can be based on lucid reasons, and not false awareness as Marx suggested.
Blau, P. (1964) Exchange and Power in Social Life. New York: Wiley. p. 23-46.
Bottomore, T. (1983) A Dictionary of Marxist Thought. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. p. 96-103.
Cattell, R. (1957) Personality and Motivation. New York: World Book. p. 5-16.
Giddens, A. (1983) Capitalism and Modern Social Theory: An Analysis of the Writings of Marx, Durkheim and Max Weber, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 101-109.
Marx, K. (1971) Preface to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. Tr. S. W. Ryanzanskaya, edited by M. Dobb. London: Lawrence & Whishart. p. 65-81.
Shortell, T. (n.d). Weber’s Theory of Social Class. [Online] Brooklyn College. Available at: <http://www.brooklynsoc.org/courses/43.1/weber.html> .