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The Class Struggle Throughout the History Essay

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Updated: Sep 14th, 2021

Looking at the history of the world at large, it becomes evident that all human societies from the most primitive of Paleolithic and Neolithic eras to the most modern technological ones of contemporary times have been socially stratified since ever. Sociological researches also reveal the very fact that even during ancient times different classes existed in every culture and civilization. Tumin has supported the existence of social classes in primitive ages.

According to historical and archaeological records, he states, stratification was present even in the small wandering bands that characterized society in the earliest days of man. In such primitive conditions, according to him, both age and sex in combination with physical strength must have been important criteria of stratification. (1978: 16). This stratification is based on caste, class, clan, community, region, religion, race, ethnicity, gender, and age groups.

There always exists a struggle between different groups of society for capturing more and more privileges and rights, which gives birth to class conflict. Thus, social conflict is often based on socioeconomic differentiation as well as unequal distribution of wealth, opportunities, and resources. All these conflicts on communal, national, and international levels have caused civil wars, anarchy and even great wars are also the outcomes of conflict and rivalries among individuals, groups, societies, and nations. There are many advantages and disadvantages of conflicts.

Various philosophers and intellectuals maintain different views regarding class struggle. Since they are the brains of society, their theories are looked into with great curiosity. “The philosophical personalities”, Thomas & Thomas view, “represent an adventure in thinking; and when we examine the lives of the philosophers we find that the procession of a man’s thoughts can be as exciting a spectacle as the pageantry of a man’s deeds.

Our world becomes wider, our imagination richer and our life more colorful and zestful as a result of our companionship with the travelers of the spirit and the pioneers of thought.” (1960:1). Jean Jacques Rousseau, the renowned French philosopher of the 18th century has discussed class struggle and its causes in his famous “Social Contract”. Rousseau has demarcated human nature and society and declares natural tendencies among them as the purest ones.

He is of the view that it is society and environment that corrupts the “noble savage” i.e. human being. Rousseau favors the class struggle and declares it imperative to seek social justice and equal opportunity of growth and opinion within a social setup. Freedom of thought and individual liberty give birth to class differentiation. The deprivation of rights results in the class struggle between haves and haves-not. “Man was born free, but everywhere he is in chains.” (Book I, Chap I) Society’s negative attitude towards an individual or class creates feelings of self-love among themselves and hatred for other strata of society. Thus, the class struggle starts taking place for the just division of rights and obligations.

The advantages of class struggle include the end of social inequality and feelings of deprivation among the individuals. Class struggle, according to Rousseau, stops one social group to exploit the others. Rousseau’s notions have been made in the background of the French revolution where 1% privileged class consists of nobility and clergy had been enjoying over 95% of the resources of the nation. There was a monarchical state of government and the people had no share in the affairs of the state.

The peasantry was looked down upon and was undergoing a cruel class system. Rousseau’s writings showed the individuals a new ray of hope and they broke the shackles of slavery by revolting against the unjust political and social system. Rousseau has declared disadvantages of class struggle too. Class struggle, according to him, may divide the nation to a greater extent by creating polarization everywhere. The feelings of patriotism start declining and the law of might is right may take the place of the law of the people. Rousseau submits that the government of a state must be run on the principle of the general will, where every individual should participate in the affairs of the government personally or through his representative in the assembly.

In a society, which is not offering justice and equality to its masses, a conflict would arise paving the way towards the struggle of snatching the rights from the exploiters and the privileged classes. Consequently, revolution is at hand, which may give birth to liberty, equality, and fraternity by breaking the walls of differentiation between haves and haves-not. The remarkable French Revolution of 1789 was the result of the philosophic ideas of Rousseau and people sought imperative inspiration from his ideas.

The same is the case with renowned philosopher of Victorian times John Stuart Mill, who has left indelible, imprints on the pages of history by dint of his intellect, valuable philosophical works, and theoretical frames. Mill has discussed the wide range of philosophical thoughts in his famous “Autobiography”. The most influential of his works include “Utilitarianism”, “On Liberty” and “On Representative Governments”.

The main theme behind the famous work of J. S. Mill under the title “On Liberty” is collective and social liberty of thought and action. It is one of the greatest versions ever written on the subject of liberty. The treatise looks into the nature of the limitations imposed on an individual by the forces of society. “The struggle between Liberty and Authority”, Mill submits, “is the most conspicuous feature in the portions of history with which we are earliest familiar, particularly in that of Greece, Rome, and England.” (1859: 2).

At the beginning of the book, he describes how cruel had been the governments of ancient times, who were always ready to perturb the wishes and views of the helpless subjects. He declares such rulers as the ‘flock of vultures’ sucking the blood of the people. Then he expresses his opinion over political governments, which are, according to him far better than those of tyrannical governments. Nevertheless, he condemns the tyranny of the majority over the minority in a democratic setup.

Mill stands for complete and unconditional civil liberty for each and every individual provided it can harm the other. He also supports the notion of class struggle and submits it as an essential part of the life cycle of every society. It is Mill who first time introduced the ‘principle of harm’ in his works. An individual must be given full freedom of thought to exercise the best of his qualities within a social structure so that it can provide maximum benefit on an individual and collective basis.

Society can only intervene if an action taken by an individual is harmful to the other members of society, but should make no interferences if these actions harm the individual himself. “Mill’s teleological notion of man as a progressive being runs strongly through his economic thinking, as well as his political writings. Despite his views of man as a scraping, selfish player in an impersonal and unforgiving marketplace, Mill ultimately champions capitalism for reasons informed and guided by the same perfectionist ideals he holds in the political realm.” (Chiu, 2005).

Mill takes liberty in a vast sense and does not see eye to eye with the notion that liberty stands for mere freedom from the tyranny of political government as it was considered in ancient times as well as medieval ages. Freedom of thought though is especially needed in a political setup, yet man must be free of unnecessary and unlimited social bindings too. The individuals should have been provided with enough freedom to celebrate their religious and cultural ceremonies as well as perform their religious and social obligations. He censures the interference of legislation and executive powers within private conduct, which he thinks inappropriate.

He laments on the unavailability of any recognized principle to test the propriety of the interference of government into private affairs. “Despotism is”, he writes, “a legitimate mode of government in dealing with the barbarians, provided the end be their improvement, and the means justified by actually effecting that end.” (1859: 17).

Social groups are not only divided into different classes in respect of socio-economic status and different occupations and professions but also distribution of a society is based on age, gender, and religion too. Social inequalities are found in all fields of life and all the institutions prevailing in a society. In this pretext, the Feminist perspective theory came into existence. The idea of division of labor on the basis of gender gave birth to feminism.

It was a strong voice against the inequalities between men and women in respect of social status, division of power as well as work and gender discrimination. Canadian feminist novelist Margaret Atwood has also elaborated on class struggle in her novel “The Handmaid’s Tale”. The novel portrays the subjugation and exploitation of women folk at the hands of male dominating society. The novel views that class struggle is not only inevitable but also it is the only solution to maintain an equal status of women in society. The character of Offred depicts how miserably women have been treated and they have to act against their will.

The existence of conflict in each and every society is inevitable and every group finds its challenger class since its own birth and creation. Lockwood insists on the presence of some mechanism in all societies resulting in inexorable conflict among its individuals (1956:134). The mechanism of such kind serves as a natural check and is responsible for the survival and solidarity of societies and cultures. Marx has linked social stratification to the means of production.

The major modern classes are, according to him, the owners merely of labor-power, owners of capital, and landowners, whose respective sources of income are wages, profit, and ground-rent. Different individuals make up the production of an organization, but the major profit goes to the upper class or bourgeoisie only, which struggles far less than the labor classes. The deprivation of rights arises the sentiments of revenge in the labor class and conflict arises in society.

Marxism perspective shows that Karl Marx lists a number of classes and (antagonistic) social relationships such as freeman and slave, lord and serf, oppressor and oppressed in describing different classes in a society that characterize different historical stages or modes of production. George Ritzer, a famous contemporary sociologist, obtains some different views on Marx’s conflict theory. In his works, he has criticized Marx and declares his sociological thought a failure especially in respect of being unable to see the positive points and bright aspects of Capitalism.

Marx has failed to foresee, Ritzer submits, how well capitalism would adapt itself to worker demands (through such mechanisms as legalized labor unions, workers’ compensation, minimum wage, workplace safety, and other standards for worker protection). (2003). Coser’s broad definition of the Marxist Conflict Perspective, Turner writes, serves his intellectual purpose to demonstrate the ubiquity of conflict and to document its functions for system integration. (Turner, 1978: 181). Dahrendorf’s definition of the term Conflict is consistent with his dialectical assumptions.

He uses this term for contests, competitions, disputes, and tensions. (1957:135). On the other hand, Coser views conflict as violent confrontations. Conflict can be antagonistic or potentially antagonistic, he opines. These antagonisms have promoted integration and adaptations among the parties to the conflict. Fink, like other sociologists, also supports Coser’s broad definition of conflict. Theorists opine that Dahrendorf’s statement of the concept of conflict is limited and narrow. In his work, “Some Conceptual Difficulties”, Fink argues conflict as a social situation or process in which two or more entities are linked by at least one form of antagonistic psychological relation. (1968:456)


Arnstein, Walter L. (1988). British Yesterday and Today. 1830 to the Present. Fifth Edition. D.C. Heath & Company. Toronto.

Chiu, Y. (2005) Perfectionism in J.S. Mill’s Economic Thought Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association, Palmer House Hilton, Chicago, Illinois. Web.

Mill, John Stuart. (1873). Autobiography.

Thomas, Henry. & Thomas, Dana Lee. (1960). Great Philosophers. Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Bombay.

Turner, Jonathan H. (1978). The Structure of Sociological Theory. The Dorsey Press, Homewood, Illinois.

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