Karl Marx's Theory of Class Conflict

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  • 0:00 Class Division & Karl Marx
  • 1:20 Definition of Class
  • 2:17 The Two Classes
  • 3:27 Class Struggle
  • 4:29 Communism as a Solution
  • 5:47 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Gaines Arnold
This lesson looks at the division that Karl Marx saw in societies throughout history. His theory of class struggle between those who control production and those who produce is discussed.

Class Division & Karl Marx

The political scene in the United States has shifted considerably over the past few decades. Conservative members of the electorate want to maintain a certain status quo, while liberals are more open to progressive change. Where the division began is open to debate, but the Great Depression, the Civil Rights Movement, and other shifts in public thinking have demonstrated a clear divide within the United States. While there are those in the U.S. who think of this as a new phenomenon, people have been writing about and acting on political and class division, or the financial divide that exists between those who make different amounts of money, for centuries.

The current political divide within both the major parties can be seen as a conflict between the haves and the have-nots. One group considers itself disenfranchised by the political establishment, while the establishment tries to win votes by reminding potential voters what it has accomplished in the past. Karl Marx, the prominent philosopher who's credited with creating communism, saw this kind of conflict (disenfranchised versus establishment) as a class struggle. His ideas had to do with economics, but those ideas ultimately had just as much to do with politics.

Definition of Class

A class of people is a group that shares common characteristics. Generally, they have a similar socioeconomic status, which is based on income and living situation. Status has nothing to do with racial or ethnic similarity, although Marx reasoned that race or ethnicity was sometimes a factor. The commonality was tied to a group's ability or inability to wield economic or political power. The group that held the power would always try to maintain and grow that power by keeping those who had no power in a constant state of powerlessness. So, those who had no power allowed themselves to be exploited by the powerful in the form of set wages and conditions, because they had no other recourse. It was essentially a paradox. Imagine an ant colony being stepped on by a person. It has no recourse but to be stepped on because it's powerless to stop the massive foot coming down on top of the colony.

The Two Classes

Karl Marx believed that in any system there were two types of people: the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. The proletariat consists of the working, or labor, class. The bourgeoisie can be through of as the idle, or management, class. In Karl Marx's theory of class conflict, he provided very clear definitions for these two classes. To understand Marx's stance in social history, we need to look at the two groups he believed made up every society.

The proletariat produces and the bourgeoisie exploits the producers based on their ability to market and sell. In an agrarian, or farming-based, society, the proletariat are the farming families who work hard to grow crops or raise animals. The bourgeoisie are the people who pay the farmers a small and inadequate amount of money for their products and sell them at a much larger profit. In an industrial society, or factory-based and machine-based society, the bourgeoisie owns the means of production (the factory) and exploits the proletariat by making them work for low wages in dangerous conditions.

Class Struggle

Karl Marx used words like 'exploit' when speaking of how the rich managed the poor. Although some people would disagree with his inflammatory take on the proletariat and bourgeoisie classes, he said that capitalistic societies were indeed based on this type of arrangement. Some people have money, either through an inheritance or other means by which they gained wealth, whereas other people are destined to remain oppressed. But Marx wasn't concerned with individual stories of this. He saw this as a societal issue.

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