“The history of the hitherto existing society is the history of the class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebian, lord and serf, guild-master and journey man, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on uninterrupted, now hidden and now open fight, a fight that each time ended in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in common ruin of the contending classes. ”
It is clear from the above that at every stage in history, there is war between the classes. The landowner exploits the landless, and the factory owner exploits the workers. Between classes, there is endless antagonism and hatred. Class conflict is the severest form of class antagonism.
War between Classes:
Marx says that according to the relentless law of history, a particular class owns and controls the means of production, and by virtue of this exploits the rest of the people. The capitalist class makes use of the state as an instrument of oppression and exploitation.
Thus at every stage there are broadly two classes: the owners of means of production, that is, exploiters on one side and the exploited on the other. History presents nothing but the record of a war between classes.
Every exploiting class at each stage gives rise to an opposite class. Hence thesis and anti-thesis can be noted. Feudal barons and capitalists form the thesis, and the serf and the proletariat respectively constitute the anti-thesis. Marx gave a call to the workers to overthrow the thesis of capitalism by the antithesis of organised labour.
Marx developed his theory of class conflict in his analysis and critique of the capitalist society. The main ingredients of this theory of conflict have been enlisted by Abraham and Morgan who may be briefly described here
Accentuation of capital is the essence of capitalism. In Raymond Aron’s words, “The essence of capitalist exchange is to proceed from money to money by way of commodity and end up with more money than one had at the outset.” Capital is gained, according to Marx, from the exploitation of the masses of population, the working class.
“The capitalist economic systems transformed the masses of people into workers, created for them a common situation and inculcated in them an awareness of common interest. Through the development of class consciousness, the economic conditions of capitalism united the masses and constituted them into “a class for itself’….. (Abraham and Morgan. Page: 37.)
Importance of Property:
According to Marx, the most distinguishing feature of any society is its form of property. An individual’s behaviour is determined by his relations to property. Classes are determined on the basis of individual’s relation to the means of production. Means of production or forces of production represent a type of property which in the capitalist society is owned by the capitalists.
Here, an individual’s occupation is not important but his relations to the means of production are important. “Property divisions are the crucial breaking lines in the class structure.”
Identification of Economic and Political Power and Authority:
From a Marxian perspective, political power emerges from economic power. The power of the ruling class therefore stems from its ownership and control of the forces of production. The political and legal systems reflect ruling class interests. In Marx’s words: “The existing relations of production between individuals must necessarily express themselves also as political and legal relations.
“The capitalists who hold monopoly of effective private property take control of political machinery. Their interests are clearly reflected in their political and ideological spheres. As Raymond Aron points out, “Political power, properly so-called, is merely the organised power of one class for oppressing another.” The political power and ideoiogy thus seem to serve the same functions for capitalists that class consciousness serves for the working class.
Polarisation of Classes:
In the capitalist society there could be only two social classes: (i) The capitalists who own the means of production and distribution, and (ii) the working classes who own nothing but their own labour. Though Marx had repeatedly referred to the intermediate state such as the “small capitalists”, “the petti bourgeoisie”, and the “iumpenproletariat”, he was of the firm belief that at the height of conflict these would be drawn into the ranks of the proletariat. Raymond Aron has termed this process as “proletarianisation.”
The Theory of Surplus Value:
Marx believed that the capitalists accumulate profit through the exploitation of labour. In fact, the relationship between the capitalists and workers is not only one of dominance and subordination, but also of exploitation. The workers produce more wealth in the form of food, manufactured goods and services than is necessary to meet their basidc needs.
In other words, they produce “surplus wealth.” But they do not enjoy the use of the surplus they have created. Instead, those who own the means of production are able to seize this surplus wealth as “profit” for their own use. According to Marx, this is the essence of exploitation and the main source of conflict between the classes.
Exploitation of the workers can only add to their misery and poverty. But the same exploitation helps the rich to become richer. As Marx says “the wealth of the bourgeoisie is swelled by large profits with corresponding increase in the mass of poverty; of pressure, of slavery, of exploitation” of the proletariat.
In every mode of production which involves the exploitation of man by man, majority of people, the people who labour, are condemned to toil for no more than the barest necessities of life. With this, society gets divided into rich and poor. To Marx, poverty is the result of exploitation not of scarcity.
The process of alienation is central to Marxian theory of class conflict. The economic exploitation and inhuman working conditions lead to increasing alienation of man. Alienation results from a lack of sense of control over the social world. The social world confronts people as a hostile thing, leaving them “alien” in the very environment that they have created.
The workers caught in the vicious circle of exploitation find no way to get out of it. Hence they lose interest in work. Work becomes an enforced activity, not a creative and a satisfying one.
The responsibility of the worker gets diminished because he does not own the tools with which he works; he does not own the final product too. He is “a mere cog in a machine” and nothing else. This situation of alienation ripens the mood of the worker for a conflict.
Class Solidarity and Antagonism:
With the growth of class consciousness among the working class, their class solidarity becomes cystalised. The working class becomes internally more homogeneous and this would help to intensify the class struggle.
Because of this class feeling and solidarity, the workers are able to form unions against the bourgeoisie. They club together in order to keep up the rate of wages. They form associations in order to make provisions beforehand for occasional revolts. Here and there contests break out into riots.
When the class struggle reaches its height, a violent revolution breaks out which destroys the structure of capitalist society. This revolution is most likely to occur at the peak of an economic crisis which is part of the recurring booms, and repressions characteristic of capitalism.
“Marx predicted that the capitalists would grow fewer and stronger as a result of their endless competition; that the middle class would disappear into the working class, and that the growing poverty of the workers would spark a successful revolution.” (I. Robertson.) Marx has asserted, unlike other wars and revolutions, this would be a historic one.
The Dictatorship of the Proletariat:
Marx felt that the revolution would be a bloody one. This revolution terminates the capitalist society and leads to the social dictatorship of the proletariat. Since the revolution results in the liquidation of the bourgeoisie, they will cease to have any power and will be reduced to the ranks of the proletariat. Thus, the inevitable historical process destroys the bourgeoisie.
The proletariats then establish their social dictatorship. But this expression “social dictatorship of the proletariat” has become a topic of controversy among the communists themselves. Many have abandoned that “treacherous phrase” particularly after the tyrannical Stalinist and post-Stalinist dictatorships.
Marx himself had written that he differentiated himself from “those communists who were out to destroy personal liberty and who wish to turn the world into one large barrack or into a gigantic warehouse.
Inauguration of the Communist Society:
After attaining the success in the revolution, the workers in course of time, would create a new socialist society. In this new society the means of producing and distributing wealth would be publicly and not privately owned. This new socialist society would be a classless and a casteless society free from exploitation of all sorts.
The state which has no place in such a society will eventually “wither away”. In this society nobody owns anything but everybody owns everything. Each individual contributes according to his ability and receives according to his needs.