Class and Class Conflict in Industrial Society.
Sociological Theory
Department of Sociology and Anthropology

From Ralf Dahrendorf, Class and Class Conflict in Industrial Society. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1959, pp. 241-248.


Classes in Post-Capitalist Society

I: Industrial Conflict



Formulation and application of a theory are two different matters, each of which obeys its own laws and patterns. While the theory itself can be set out in a highly schematic and "logical" fashion, the analysis of facts would lose much of its color and interest if forced into the strait jacket of theoretical exposition. Although I shall indicate when the following analysis of conflict in advanced industrial society is guided by the theory of social class and class conflict, I shall not attempt to rearrange facts so as to fit the order of postulates, models, and hypotheses resulting from the considerations of the last two chapters. The order of reality rather than of theory will guide our analysis in the final chapters of this study, except in this section of this chapter, which serves a special purpose in the context of the following analysis.

It is proper to demand that if we dismiss an old theory--as we did Marx's--and replace it with a new one, the new theory should be capable of explaining both the facts accounted for and the facts left unexplained by the old theory. Thus, one of the tests of the usefulness of our theory of group conflict lies in its applicability to the conditions with which Marx dealt. There is, of course, no intrinsic reason why it should be possible to deal more schematically with this historical material than with post-capitalist society. However, in the present context I propose to simplify the task of reconsidering class conflict under capitalism. I shall refrain from questioning the facts described by Marx, and, instead, concentrate on how these facts appear in the light of the theory of group conflict. This would appear to be a doubtful procedure. All too often the societies that appear in the work of sociologists are merely historical constructions borrowed from earlier works or even invented in order to provide an impressive contrast for contemporary data. Were it not for the thorough documentation of Marx's work, and for the deliberate sketchiness of this initial section, I should do everything to avoid the suspicion of having an uncritical attitude toward history. As it is, I must ask the reader's indulgence if the next few pages leave much to be desired in terms of historical accuracy and detail.

The starting point of Marx's analyses consists in what he himself variously calls the "sphere of production," the "relations of production," or "property relations." Clearly, all these expressions refer to the industrial enterprise and the social relations obtaining within it. For Marx, the enterprise is the nucleus of class war. In terms of our approach, the relevant feature here is that the industrial enterprise is an imperatively coordinated association. Marx, of course, emphasized the property aspect. This seems reasonable, in retrospect, since at his time it was legal possession of the means of production that provided both the foundation of capitalist power and the main issue of industrial conflict; but this is nevertheless too specific an approach to the problem. Industrial enterprise, being an imperatively coordinated association, has in it two quasi-groups which we may designate, following Marx, as those of capital or the capitalists and of wage labor or the wage laborers. Both capital and labor were united by certain latent interests which, being contradictory, placed them on the opposite sides of a conflict relation. While the most formal objective of the opposing interests was, in capitalist society, either the maintenance or the change of the status quo of authority, the precise substance of the conflict might, in relation to the specific conditions of this period, be described as a clash between capital's profit orientation and labor's orientation toward an improvement of their material status.

The intensity of conflict in capitalist society was increased by the superimposition of authority and other factors of social status, especially income. Domination meant, for the capitalists, a high income, while subjection involved for labor extreme material hardship. There was a clear correlation between the distribution of authority and social stratification.

Despite this initial position, large obstacles were in the way of organization for both quasi-groups in the early stages of industrialization. We find here that constellation of factors described above (p.188) which makes the organization of interest groups virtually impossible. Lack of leaders and ideologies (technical conditions), heterogeneous modes of recruitment to authority positions (social conditions), and, in the case of labor, the absence of freedom of coalition (political conditions)--all these hold industrial conflict for some considerable time in a stage of latency, in which there are only occasional attempts at organization. As industrial associations stabilize, the conditions of organization gradually emerge, and both capital and labor form organizations (employers' associations, trade unions) in defense of what are now articulate manifest interests. Industrial class conflict enters a manifest phase of which strikes and lockouts are the most telling symptoms.

The situation described so far is that of the sphere of industry. It is characteristic of conflict in capitalist societies, however, that not only authority and social status, but also industrial and political conflict are superimposed one on the other. (l) The dominating groups of industry were at the same time the dominating groups of the state, either in person, through members of their families, or by other agents. Conversely, the subjected groups of industry were as such excluded from political authority. Industry is the dominating order of society; its structures of authority and patterns of conflict therefore extend to the whole society. Consequently, the quasi-groups of industry also extend to the political sphere. The industrial quasi-group of capital becomes, as bourgeoisie (to use the Marxian terms once again), the dominant group of the state, whereas wage labor is, as proletariat, subjected in the political sphere as well. Since, under the particular conditions of capitalist society, conflict fronts that characterized industry and society were identical, the conflict was intensified to an extraordinary degree.

In the political field, too, organization of conflict groups proved difficult in the beginning. Insofar as industrial and political quasi-groups were identical, the same factors were at work in the state that tended to prevent industrial organization. Moreover, political restrictions, such as electoral systems, made it difficult for the proletariat to form effective interest groups. Thus, class conflict was smoldering below the surface of society for some time, until all restrictions fell and the two classes met openly in the political arena.

By virtue of the superimposition of various lines of differentiation this conflict was, as we have seen, extremely intense. Its intensity was further increased by the fact that both classes were relatively closed units. Mobility within and between generations remained an exception. (2) Bourgeoisie and proletariat were strictly separate and largely self-recruiting groups. But in this period it was not merely the intensity of the conflict but the violence as well that was extraordinarily great. In industry and the state, there were virtually no accepted modes of conflict regulation. In the absence of a democratic process that put both parties to a conflict on an equal footing, the subjected class increasingly became a suppressed class which faced as a solid but powerless bloc the absolute rule of the incumbents of roles of domination. Because of this hardening of the class fronts, there were widespread demands for a complete and revolutionary change of existing structures. For structure changes could not slowly grow out of class conflict in this stage. Immobility and lack of regulation made the penetration of the ruling class by members of the subjected class impossible. At the same time, there were neither institutional channels nor ideological provisions for the ruling class to accept and realize any of the interests of the proletariat. Thus, it seemed justified to predict that class conflict in capitalist society tended toward both sudden and radical changes, i.e., a revolution promoted by the proletariat which replaces in one stroke the dominant groups of industry and society.

Marx carried his analysis of capitalist society approximately to this point. Although he went considerably further in detail, his whole work converges on the prediction of the proletarian revolution. We have seen earlier how at this point Marx became a prisoner of preconceived philosophical and, perhaps, political convictions. Thus he did not, or would not, notice that factual developments followed the course of his predictions only up to a point. The ossification of conflict fronts and the intensification of conflict began to be checked both by the very fact of organization of interest groups on the part of the proletariat and by the structure changes to which this organization led. Within industry in particular, signs of the development of modes of regulation became apparent; trade unions managed to make some of their claims effectively heard and accepted. Marx showed himself a consistent philosopher but a poor sociologist when he tried to ridicule such "partial results" and the operation of trade unions (i.e., industrial conflict, as distinct from political class conflict) in general. His attempt to advocate, despite such tendencies, an intensification of class war, and his insistence on the revolutionary goal of the proletariat, document his prophetic and political rather than his scientific self. At this point, we have to reject not only the substance, but the very intention of his work.

Before we try to follow the indicated lines of class conflict somewhat beyond the point of Marx's analysis, one clarifying remark seems in place. It should now be abundantly clear that the traditional, Marxian concept of class is but a special case of the concept advanced in the present study. For Marx, classes are conflict groups under conditions of (a) absence of mobility, (b) superimposition of authority, property, and general social status, (c) superimposition of industrial and political conflict, and (d) absence of effective conflict regulation. Thus, classes are conflict groups involved in extremely intense and violent conflicts directed toward equally extremely sudden and radical changes. This is the "traditional" or "historical" concept of class. As against this concept, we have removed all four conditions mentioned from its definition and included them as empirically variable factors in a theory of social class and class conflict. In this way, the concept itself becomes a highly formal and--in this sense--"unhistorical" category; but the theory gains in fruitfulness, range, and applicability.

Thus, what has happened since Marx are in fact changes in the factors that contributed to the intensity and violence of the conflicts of his time. Patterns of conflict regulation emerged in both industry and the state. More and more, the democratic process of decision-making gave both parties a chance to realize their goals. The violence of class conflict was thereby effectively reduced. The institutionalization of social mobility made for a certain degree of openness in both classes. Absolute deprivation on the scales of social stratification gave way, for the proletariat, to relative deprivation, and later, for some, to comparative gratification. Finally, the associations of industry and the state were dissociated to some extent. All these changes served to reduce both the intensity and the violence of class conflict in post-capitalist society, and to make sudden and radical structure changes increasingly improbable. New patterns of class conflict emerge, to which we shall turn presently.

It must, of course, be emphasized that, whatever concept or theory one employs, history cannot be explained solely in terms of class. The changes that separate capitalist and post-capitalist society are not wholly due to the effects of class conflict, nor have they merely been changes in the patterns of conflict. Thus, the subdivision of authority positions stimulated by an ideology of rationalization in both the enterprise and the state is an autonomous process. The decomposition of capital and labor by the separation of ownership and control, and by the emergence of new differentiations of skill, has consequences for class conflict but is due to other factors. As a comprehensive process the development from capitalist to post-capitalist society remains outside the scope of the present analysis. But it should be clear from the preceding sketch that in principle our theory of group conflict is applicable, also, to the facts with which Marx dealt--and I hope it will be clear from the following rather more elaborate analysis in what sense it lends itself, by generalizing earlier approaches, to a coherent account of industrial and political conflict in the contemporary world.


In a sense, Schelsky is undoubtedly right in calling the "often heard question . . .: Have we still got a class society today?" a "naive" question (72, p. 62). However, this question is naive not so much because it is too general to be answered with a plain "yes" or "no," but because it can be answered without thereby stating anything significant or exciting about post-capitalist society. Are there still classes? Or, as we can ask more precisely now: Are there still interest groups and quasi-groups in the sense of class theory? That there are interest groups in contemporary society can be affirmed immediately. There are, for example, trade unions and employers' associations, progressive and conservative political parties. It is not difficult to show that all these organizations are interest groups in the sense of our definition. Quasi-groups, on the other hand, may be assumed to exist wherever there are authority relations and imperatively coordinated associatlons. Is it necessary to prove that there are such associations and relations in contemporary society? The state, the industrial enterprise, the churches--to mention only a few-- are imperatively coordinated associations which exist in all modern societies and which, if our theory is right, justify the assumption that there are quasi-groups with conflicting latent interests within them. And if post-capitalist society has quasi-groups and interest groups, it has classes also. Like its precursor, advanced industrial society is a class society. Concept and theory of class are still applicable.

By taking this position we differ from a number of sociologists whose work has been discussed above. But is this difference, as described so far, more than a difference of terminology? Cannot thc charge be leveled against us that we presuppose the existence of classes by definition instead of demonstrating it empirically? Can we really answer the question of whether we still have a class society as easily as we did?

The assertion that there still are classes because there are quasi-groups and interest groups is indeed less than a definition. It is, on the basis of class theory, a mere tautology. On the other hand, the assertion that there are still classes because there are imperatively coordinated associations is more than a definition. Although it presupposes the theoretical and perhaps definitional connection between classes and authority relations, it asserts the empirical presence of relations of authority. Social classes and class conflict are present wherever authority is distributed unequally over social positions. It may seem trivial to state that such unequal distribution exists in associations of post-capitalist society, but this assertion nevertheless establishes both the applicability of class theory and the radical difference from all attempts to describe contemporary society as classless.

Nevertheless, to conclude merely that we are still living in a class society is as insufficient as it is unsatisfactory. It marks the beginning, not the end, of an analysis of advanced industrial society. For many people, the notion of a class society immediately evokes such definite associations that to apply it to a particular society might appear to involve a substantial statement of fact. I should like to emphasize therefore that I do not regard it as such. I am concerned, here, not with asserting the applicability of class theory, but with applying it. If imperatively coordinated associations can be shown to be a functional requisite of social structures, then the universal existence of classes is postulated by the same token. By way of empirical generalization we can maintain at the very least that in many societies there are associations and classes, and in all known societies social conflicts. Societies do not differ by the fact that in some there are classes and in others not. Just as in the sociology of the family we are concerned not with the existence but with the patterns and functions of the family, so here we are dealing not with the presence of classes but with their nature and effect. By confronting capitalist with post-capitalist society we want to discover the changed patterns and conditions of class formation and class conflict. Historically, the problem of an analysis of post-capitalist society in terms of class may be formulated as one of the destiny of the "old" conflict between capital and labor, bourgeoisie and proletariat. If we project the historical problem into the present it becomes transformed into the task to apply the tool of class theory to some critical features of post-capitalist society and to try to contribute in this way to the understanding of the society in which we live.

The "society in which we live" covers a multitude of generalities. It is as awkward as it can be fruitful to lump together, in sociological analysis, a number of societies under a general term, such as "advanced industrial" or "post-capitalist society." Most of the data presented so far in this study relate to contemporary British, American, and German society. It is an open question whether these data, or the conclusions derived from them, apply to French, Italian, Japanese, or Russian society as well and indeed, whether there are not significant differences between Germany, Britain, and the United States which would have to be taken into account. I am well aware of this problem, and of the criticism to which I lay myself open in not discussing it more elaborately. It is nevertheless my intention to try to consider some of the features of the industrial and political life of "post-capitalist society" without referring to specific countries or periods in more definite terms than by stating my belief that the conclusions of our analysis apply at least to those democratic countries of the West that underwent industrialization in the nineteenth century, and at most to all societies at an advanced stage of industrial development. In this analysis, I shall avoid generalities by specifying subject rather than time and place. By concentrating on a few salient points, I hope to pave the way for more detailed investigations. This essay--for such it is--does not pretend to answer all problems of conflict in post-capitalist society.


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