Social Conflict Theory

by Kent McClelland

The several social theories that emphasize social conflict have roots in the ideas of Karl Marx (1818-1883), the great German theorist and political activist. The Marxist, conflict approach emphasizes a materialist interpretation of history, a dialectical method of analysis, a critical stance toward existing social arrangements, and a political program of revolution or, at least, reform.

The materialist view of history starts from the premise that the most important determinant of social life is the work people are doing, especially work that results in provision of the basic necessities of life, food, clothing and shelter.Marx thought that the way the work is socially organized and the technology used in production will have a strong impact on every other aspect of society. He maintained that everything of value in society results from human labor. Thus,Marx saw working men and women as engaged in making society, in creating the conditions for their own existence.

Marx summarized the key elements of this materialist view of history as follows:

In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness (Marx 1971:20).

Marx divided history into several stages, conforming to broad patterns in the economic structure of society. The most important stages for Marx’s argument were feudalism, capitalism, and socialism. The bulk of Marx’s writing is concerned with applying the materialist model of society to capitalism, the stage of economic and social development that Marx saw as dominant in 19th century Europe. For Marx, the central institution of capitalist society is private property, the system by which capital (that is, money, machines, tools, factories, and other material objects used in production) is controlled by a small minority of the population. This arrangement leads to two opposed classes, the owners of capital (called the bourgeoisie) and the workers (called the proletariat), whose only property is their own labor time, which they have to sell to the capitalists.

Owners are seen as making profits by paying workers less than their work is worth and, thus, exploiting them. (In Marxist terminology, material forces of production or means of production include capital, land, and labor, whereas social relations of production refers to the division of labor and implied class relationships.)

Economic exploitation leads directly to political oppression, as owners make use of their economic power to gain control of the state and turn it into a servant of bourgeois economic interests. Police power, for instance, is used to enforce property rights and guarantee unfair contracts between capitalist and worker. Oppression also takes more subtle forms: religion serves capitalist interests by pacifying the population; intellectuals, paid directly or indirectly by capitalists, spend their careers justifying and rationalizing the existing social and economic arrangements. In sum, the economic structure of society molds the superstructure, including ideas (e.g., morality, ideologies, art, and literature) and the social institutions that support the class structure of society (e.g., the state, the educational system, the family, and religious institutions). Because the dominant or ruling class (the bourgeoisie) controls the social relations of production, the dominant ideology in capitalist society is that of the ruling class. Ideology and social institutions, in turn, serve to reproduce and perpetuate the economic class structure. Thus, Marx viewed the exploitative economic arrangements of capitalism as the real foundation upon which the superstructure of social, political, and intellectual consciousness is built.

Marx’s view of history might seem completely cynical or pessimistic, were it not for the possibilities of change revealed by his method of dialectical analysis. (The Marxist dialectical method, based on Hegel’s earlier idealistic dialectic, focuses attention on how an existing social arrangement, or thesis, generates its social opposite, or antithesis, and on how a qualitatively different social form, orsynthesis, emerges from the resulting struggle.) Marx was an optimist. He believed that any stage of history based on exploitative economic arrangements generated within itself the seeds of its own destruction. For instance, feudalism, in which land owners exploited the peasantry, gave rise to a class of town-dwelling merchants, whose dedication to making profits eventually led to thebourgeois revolution and the modern capitalist era. Similarly, the class relations of capitalism will lead inevitably to the next stage, socialism. The class relations of capitalism embody a contradiction: capitalists need workers, and vice versa, but the economic interests of the two groups are fundamentally at odds. Such contradictions mean inherent conflict and instability, the class struggle. Adding to the instability of the capitalist system are the inescapable needs for ever-wider markets and ever-greater investments in capital to maintain the profits of capitalists. Marx expected that the resulting economic cycles of expansion and contraction, together with tensions that will build as the working class gains greater understanding of its exploited position (and thus attains class consciousness), will eventually culminate in a socialist revolution.

Despite this sense of the unalterable logic of history, Marxists see the need for social criticism and for political activity to speed the arrival of socialism, which, not being based on private property, is not expected to involve as many contradictions and conflicts as capitalism. Marxists believe that social theory and political practice are dialectically intertwined, with theory enhanced by political involvement and with political practice necessarily guided by theory. Intellectuals ought, therefore, to engage in praxis, to combine political criticism and political activity. Theory itself is seen as necessarily critical and value-laden, since the prevailing social relations are based upon alienating and dehumanizing  exploitation of the labor of the working classes.

Marx’s ideas have been applied and reinterpreted by scholars for over a hundred years, starting with Marx’s close friend and collaborator, Friedrich Engels (1825-95), who supported Marx and his family for many years from the profits of the textile factories founded by Engels’ father, while Marx shut himself away in the library of the British Museum. Later, Vladimir I. Lenin (1870-1924), leader of the Russian revolution, made several influential contributions to Marxist theory. In recent years Marxist theory has taken a great variety of forms, notably the world-systems theory proposed by Immanuel Wallerstein (1974, 1980) and the comparative theory of revolutions put forward by Theda Skocpol (1980). Marxist ideas have also served as a starting point for many of the modern feminist theorists. Despite these applications, Marxism of any variety is still a minority position among American sociologists.


Marx, Karl. 1971. Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Tr. S. W. Ryanzanskaya, edited by M. Dobb. London: Lawrence & Whishart.

Skocpol, Theda. 1980. States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia, and China. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Wallerstein, Immanuel M. 1974. The Modern World-System: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century. New York: Academic Press.

         . 1980. The Modern World-System II: Mercantilism and the Consolidation of the European World-Economy, 1600-1750. New York: Academic Press.


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