Marx & Stratification
An overview of Karl Marx's classic theory of stratification, beginning with Marx's conceptualization of class and followed by a detailed exploration of conditions that Marx outlined for societal change is provided. According to Marx, all societies throughout human history ultimately divide into two conflicting classes: the dominant ruling class who own the means of society's productive resources and workers who do not. In a capitalist society, it is the polarization between two classes—the dominant capitalist or bourgeoisie class and the subordinate working class or proletariat—that Marx theorizes would inevitably grow until a dynamic class struggle forces revolutionary societal change. For Marx, such inequality is not part of the human condition, but in a capitalist society it is a fundamental characteristic. The second section of this paper presents features of the class system in the United States, and illustrates the relevance of Marxian theory. Indeed, Marx's theory has made significant contributions to the understanding of the origins and development of class and stratification, and thus his nineteenth and early twentieth century writings remain relevant to contemporary sociology.
Keywords Blue-Collar Workers; Bourgeoisie; Capitalism; Class; Class Consciousness; Karl Marx; Lower-Middle Class; Lower Class; Means of Production; Middle Class; Proletariat; Ruling Class; Socialism; Social Stratification; Socioeconomic Status; Upper Class; Working Class
German philosopher Karl Marx (1818–1883) is one of the most prominent political and economic thinkers of the nineteenth century. In 1848 Marx wrote The Communist Manifesto with his friend and collaborator German philosopher Friedrich Engels. In it Marx and Engels argue the inevitability of revolutionary conflict between classes. Ultimately, the book Das Kapital, which became the foundation for socialism, is widely considered to be Marx's masterpiece. It is these writings and others published by Marx and Engels that form the foundation of thought and belief known as Marxism.
Many of the basic concepts that Marx presented in his nineteenth and early twentieth century writings remain relevant to contemporary sociology and continue to be applied and debated by social scientists today. Marx's classic theory on social stratification published in The Communist Manifesto opens the first section of this paper. The second section focuses on interpretations and applications of Marx's theory as it relates to contemporary patterns of stratification in American society.
Marxian Theory of Stratification
Marx's writings of the nineteenth century are perhaps the most influential for attempting to understand the origins and development of stratification in capitalist societies. According to Marx, the division between two classes—the dominant capitalist or bourgeoisie class and the subordinate working class or proletariat—would inevitably grow until a dynamic class struggle forced revolutionary societal change.
Marx's Conceptualization of Class
The concept of class has long been the focus of sociological debate and theory, and Marx's analysis of class is no exception. While there exists a lack of consensus on the core concepts of class analysis within the Marxist tradition, Marx's focus on class has sparked endless debate and research for its complex analysis of the origins and development of class structure.
Class, in its most general of definitions, refers to the grouping of individuals with similar incomes and occupations. Marx's conceptualization of class suggests a definition beyond that of relation to purely economic resources: it elaborates these relations with regard to the individual's relationship to the society's means of production. According to Marx, the means of production refers to the productive resources in society; in other words, things that are necessary to supply the society's economic needs, for example, the types of technology used to produce basic necessities within the economic system. An individual's relationship to the economic system depends on how he relates to the sources of power in that system. In feudal times, for example, the landlord had power over the society's productive resources and the peasants. In modern times power resides in the hands of capitalists who own the means of production. The worker, possessing no capital, only labor power, must sell it to the owner of capital (Freedman, 2005). Thus, for Marx, those people who hold the same position with regard to the productive process share a class—owners and workers, haves and have-nots.
Essentially, then, societies are composed of two classes: the owners of the means of production and the workers. Indeed, within all societies, according to Marx, regardless of their different productive processes there exist these two opposing classes (e.g., masters and slaves in slave societies). In Marxian theory, these two classes in capitalist societies are the bourgeoisie or capitalist class, and the proletariat or working class.
Bourgeoisie is a Marxian term that refers to the class of owners of the means of production who are the employers of the workers. The proletariat refers to the class of workers who do not own the means of production and are therefore forced to selling their labor in order to make a living. Inequality, then, arises out of this division of society into capitalists and proletariat, owners and workers. This is the essence of Marxian theory of stratification and inequality as presented in The Communist Manifesto . According to Marx's analysis of class, the specific roles that people play in the economic system are not of their free will, but are forced upon them by necessity. The unequal distribution of society's productive resources creates a system of stratification. Authors often use an analogy from the field of geology to illustrate the sociological meaning of stratification—that is, different layers of the earth's subsoil or strata have different properties. In sociology, of course, it is human groups that are arranged in different layers or vertical order. From a sociological perspective, people situated at these various rankings in the vertical order receive unequal shares of the society's wealth and possess differing degrees of power over others.
Marx views capitalism as a political tool for this ranking of human groups for the purpose of distributing wealth and power within the economic system rather than as a system for producing goods and services to fill human needs. It is the social institutions in societies such as the economy, government, and education that operate to assure the position of various human groups (Freedman, 2005). In Marxian theory, the capitalist class (the bourgeoisie) is able to maintain its power within the system of stratification because it possesses three key assets:
• The means of production,
• Control of the state, and
• Control of ideas and values (Marger, 2008).
The proletariat or working class, without power and control over the means of production, are forced to sell their labor to the capitalists, and thus, must accept what the capitalists will pay in wages. According to Marx, workers are not paid the full value of their labor despite their role in producing wealth for the economic system; they get only what the capitalist is willing to pay and the surplus is taken by the capitalist for profit. It is unlikely then in these exploitative conditions that a worker will ever be able to save enough to ultimately possess their own productive property and become capitalists themselves (Marger, 2008).
…the proletariat, the modern working class, developed-a class of labourers, who live only so long as they find work, and who find work only so long as their labour increases capital. These labourers, who must sell themselves piecemeal, are a commodity, like every other article of commerce, and are consequently exposed to all the vicissitudes of competition, to all the fluctuations of the market (Marx & Engels as cited in Shapiro, 2005, p. 40).
Capitalist Control of Government
The capitalist class is also able to maintain its power within the system of stratification because it controls the state or government: "The executive of the modern State is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie" (Marx & Engels as cited in Tucker, 1972, p. 337). The class structure thus gives rise to a governmental institution that functions for the sole purpose of protecting the property and privileges of the capitalists.
Capitalists are further able to maintain their power within the system of stratification through possession of society's ideas and values which serve to assure workers' compliance with the social order of capitalist...
(The entire section is 3964 words.)