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Volume 3

Expanded Contents


1. Introduction and Summary
2. Aggression and the Conflict Helix
3. Frustration, Deprivation, Aggression, and the Conflict Helix
4. Misperception, Cognitive Dissonance, Righteousness, and Conflict
6. Same and Other; Similarity and Difference
7. Cross-Pressures, Overpopulation, Anomie, and Conflict
8. Conflict as a Process and the Conflict Helix
9. Opposition, Determinism, Inevitability, and Conflict
10. Intentional Humanism

Other Volumes

Vol. 1: The Dynamic Psychological Field
Vol. 2: The Conflict Helix
Vol. 4: War, Power, Peace
Vol. 5: The Just Peace

Other Related Work

Conflict And Violence page

Democratic Peace page


Chapter 5

Marxism, Class Conflict,
The Conflict Helix*

By R.J. Rummel

This much, at least, we should have learnt from Hegel and Marx: we can only make a contribution to the understanding of consensus, conflict and power by approaching our subject matter critically. A situation characterized by the absence of manifest social conflict may contain important latent conflicts of interest; the latter may have a relatively great potential to serve as the focus of crystallization of manifest conflicts. This being the case we cannot, in sociology as in peace research, direct our attention exclusively to what "is"--we must at least be equally concerned with that which "could be."
---- de Kadt, 1965:471

One of the most powerful sociological explanations of social conflict is that of Karl Marx, who posited a class struggle between proletariat and bourgeoisie intrinsic to capitalist, industrial society. This notion is powerful in being dynamic, intuitively persuasive, and appearing to fit well with history. It is powerful in providing in one package a description, an explanation, and a prediction of contemporary problems, and a remedy. In outlining this view of social conflict and relating it to the conflict helix, I try to show that the conflict helix agrees with Ralf Dahrendorf's "revisions" of Marx and generalizes Dahrendorf's own theory to all societies.


It is important to recognize that Marx viewed the structure of society in relation to its major classes, and the struggle between them as the engine of change in this structure. His was no equilibrium or consensus theory. Conflict was not deviational within society's structure, nor were classes functional elements maintaining the system. The structure itself was a derivative of and ingredient in the struggle of classes. His was a conflict view of modem (nineteenth century) society.

The key to understanding Marx is his class definition.1 A class is defined by the ownership of property. Such ownership vests a person with the power to exclude others from the property and to use it for personal purposes. In relation to property there are three great classes of society: the bourgeoisie (who own the means of production such as machinery and factory buildings, and whose source of income is profit), landowners (whose income is rent), and the proletariat (who own their labor and sell it for a wage).

Class thus is determined by property, not by income or status. These are determined by distribution and consumption, which itself ultimately reflects the production and power relations of classes. The social conditions of bourgeoisie production are defined by bourgeois property. Class is therefore a theoretical and formal relationship among individuals.

The force transforming latent class membership into a struggle of classes is class interest. Out of similar class situations, individuals come to act similarly. They develop a mutual dependence, a community, a shared interest interrelated with a common income of profit or of wages. From this common interest classes are formed, and for Marx, individuals form classes to the extent that their interests engage them in a struggle with the opposite class.

At first, the interests associated with land ownership and rent are different from those of the bourgeoisie. But as society matures, capital (i.e., the property of production) and land ownership merge, as do the interests of landowners and bourgeoisie. Finally the relation of production, the natural opposition between proletariat and bourgeoisie, determines all other activities.

As Marx saw the development of class conflict, the struggle between classes was initially confined to individual factories. Eventually, given the maturing of capitalism, the growing disparity between life conditions of bourgeoisie and proletariat, and the increasing homogenization within each class, individual struggles become generalized to coalitions across factories. Increasingly class conflict is manifested at the societal level. Class consciousness is increased, common interests and policies are organized, and the use of and struggle for political power occurs. Classes become political forces.

The distribution of political power is determined by power over production (i.e., capital). Capital confers political power, which the bourgeois class uses to legitimatize and protect their property and consequent social relations. Class relations are political, and in the mature capitalist society, the state's business is that of the bourgeoisie. Moreover, the intellectual basis of state rule, the ideas justifying the use of state power and its distribution, are those of the ruling class. The intellectual-social culture is merely a superstructure resting on the relation of production, on ownership of the means of production.

Finally, the division between classes will widen and the condition of the exploited worker will deteriorate so badly that social structure collapses: the class struggle is transformed into a proletarian revolution. The workers' triumph will eliminate the basis of class division in property through public ownership of the means of production. With the basis of classes thus wiped away, a classless society will ensue (by definition), and since political power to protect the bourgeoisie against the workers is unnecessary, political authority and the state will wither away.

Overall, there are six elements in Marx's view of class conflict.

  • Classes are authority relationships based on property ownership.
  • A class defines groupings of individuals with shared life situations, thus interests.
  • Classes are naturally antagonistic by virtue of their interests.
  • Imminent within modern society is the growth of two antagonistic classes and their struggle, which eventually absorbs all social relations.
  • Political organization and Power is an instrumentality of class struggle, and reigning ideas are its reflection.
  • Structural change is a consequence of the class struggle.

Marx's emphasis on class conflict as constituting the dynamics of social change, his awareness that change was not random but the outcome of a conflict of interests, and his view of social relations as based on power were contributions of the first magnitude. However, time and history have invalidated many of his assumptions and predictions. Capitalist ownership and control of production have been separated. Joint stock companies forming most of the industrial sector are now almost wholly operated by non-capital-owning managers. Workers have not grown homogeneous but are divided and subdivided into different skill groups. Class stability has been undercut by the development of a large middle class and considerable social mobility. Rather than increasing extremes of wealth and poverty, there has been a social leveling and an increasing emphasis on social justice. And finally, bourgeois political power has progressively weakened with growth in worker oriented legislation and of labor-oriented parties, and with a narrowing of the rights and privileges of capital ownership. Most important, the severest manifestation of conflict between workers and capitalist--the strike--has been institutionalized through collective bargaining legislation and the legalization of strikes.

These historical events and trends notwithstanding, the sociological outlines of Marx's approach have much value. His emphasis on conflict, on classes, on their relations to the state, and on social change was a powerful perspective that should not be discarded. The spirit, if not the substance, of his theory is worth developing.


The ideas of Marx spawned a rich literature; much of it is polemical and political, but some authors have tried to avoid the historical or empirical errors Marx committed, to learn from changes since his time, and to apply the spirit of his sociology to contemporary industrial society. The best of these efforts is Ralf Dahrendorf's Class and Class Conflict in Industrial Society (1959).

Dahrendorf recognizes two approaches to society, which he calls the Utopian and the Rationalist. The first emphasizes equilibrium of values, consensus, and stability; the second revolves around dissension and conflict, the latter being the mover of structural change. Both are social perspectives; neither is completely false, but each views a separate face of society. Unfortunately, he feels, the consensus view has dominated contemporary sociology, especially in the United States, and he sets out to create some balance between the two views by developing and illustrating the theoretical power of a class-conflict perspective.

He begins as he must with a review of Marx's writings, a clarification of his model, a discussion of the sociopolitical changes since Marx. A review of subsequent theoretical works bearing on class is followed by a sociological critique of Marx. These necessary scholarly chores completed, Dahrendorf presents his own view of class.

He sees Marx's defining characteristic of class (as property ownership) as a special case of a more general authoritative relationship. Society grants the holders of social positions power to exercise coercive control over others. And property ownership, the legitimate right to coercively exclude others from one's property, is such power. This control is a matter of authority, which Dahrendorf defines, according to Weber, as the probability that a command with specific content will be obeyed by certain people. Authority is associated with a role or position and differs from power, which Dahrendorf claims is individual. Authority is a matter of formal legitimacy backed by sanctions. It is a relation existing between people in imperatively coordinated groups, thus originating in social structure.

Authority, however, is dichotomous; there is always an authoritative hierarchy on one side and those who are excluded on the other. Within any imperative group are those who are superordinate and those who are subordinate. There is an arrangement of social roles comprising expectations of domination or subjugation.

Those who assume opposing roles have structurally generated contradictory interests, to preserve or to change the status quo. Incumbents of authoritative roles benefit from the status-quo, which grants them their power. Those toward whom this authoritative power is exercised, and who suffer from it, however, are naturally opposed to this state of affairs.

Superordinates and subordinates thus form separate quasi-groups of shared latent interests. On the surface, members of these groups and their behavior may vary considerably, but they form a pool from which conflict groups can recruit members. With leadership, ideology, and the political (freedom) and social conditions of organization being present, latent interests become manifested through political organizations and conflict.

How does Dahrendorf define social classes? They are latent or manifest conflict groups arising from the authority structure of imperative coordinated organizations. Class conflict then arises from and is related to this structure. The structural source of group conflict lies in authoritative domination and subjugation; the object of such conflict is the status quo; and the consequence is to change (not necessarily through revolution) social structure.

It should be stressed that Dahrendorf's theory is not limited to "capitalist" societies. Since authoritative roles are the differentia between classes, classes and class conflict also exist in communist or socialist societies. Classes exist insofar as there are those who dominate by virtue of legitimate positions (such as the Soviet factory manager, party chief, commune head, or army general) and those who are habitually in subordinate positions (the citizen, worker, peasant).


Chapter 5 of Vol. 2: The Conflict Helix, which describes my view of class conflict as part of the social conflict process, reveals many similarities between the conflict helix and the dynamic perspectives of Marx and Dahrendorf. This section makes these similarities and some of the differences explicit.

The conflict helix begins analytically with a conception of the social space as a field of meanings, values, norms, statuses, and class, where status has the joint meaning of formal positions (as in authoritative roles) and the informal statuses of wealth, power, and prestige. Marx and Dahrendorf also have beginning analytic conceptions of society. For Marx, it is people distributed on the bases of differentiated property ownership and sources of income; for Dahrendorf, it is differential power, norms, and roles.2

My notion of social space incorporates power and norms and formal roles, while making explicit the function of cultural meanings and values. This subjective culture is purposely ignored by Dahrendorf in his desire to emphasize the conflict dynamics of society. The existence of some shared meanings and values is a prerequisite of class conflict, however, and a breakdown of crystallized meanings, values, and norms can itself generate the conditions for class conflict. A culture in which slave labor is generally believed right, proper, and sanctioned by the gods, as in classical Greece, will have little associated class conflict.

For Marx, meanings, values, and norms were themselves a product of property relations. Property relations define social space; the conditions of ownership of capital, land, or one's labor constitute dichotomous components distributing individuals in their social relations. The concepts of culture, of subjective meanings, values, and norms were not part of Marx's intellectual world. Their closest counterpart, ideas, were a manifestation of class division.

In the helix, the social space is transformed into a structure of conflict insofar as differential locations in the space define opposing attitudes. For me, an attitude is a psychological disposition to want certain goals. Attitudes form a switchboard between needs and active interests; the connections are wired through acculturation, socialization, and personal learning, and experience. It is the reflection of our culture and society, of our social space. These opposing attitudes are more than simply conflicting wishes or wants; instead we have a clash of opposing perspectives. The structure of conflict defines latent conflict groups, in the sense that people who have opposing attitudes are reservoirs for opposing interests groups.

Now, I define class according to the relationship of people to authoritative hierarchies in groups. There are two classes, those with authoritative roles and those without, and these classes define opposing attitudes (i.e., a particular structure of conflict). Other structures of conflict are not associated with classes, but this is the main one manifested in societal or collective conflict and political struggle.

My view is close to Dahrendorf's. Classes are latent interest groups associated with the authoritative roles of imperatively coordinated organizations. However, Dahrendorf does not distinguish types of groups or dissociate authority and coercion, nor does he deal with the psychological implications of latent interests, feeling it sufficient to treat interests as a sociological category. With this I disagree; for an understanding of the meaning and process of conflict requires a preliminary consideration of perception, expectations, dispositions, needs, and power. To provide such a foundation was the intent of my Vol. 1: The Dynamic Psychological Field, and my treatment of field and power in Vol. 2: The Conflict Helix.

Aside from the different definitions of class, Dahrendorf and Marx have similar views of latent interests and the class situation. Marx saw classes in relation to property, and this relation defined different life situations and opposing latent interests. No manifest conflict behavior might occur. Indeed, members of opposing classes might interact as though no opposing interests existed. Thus similar class situations are a necessary but not a sufficient condition for manifest struggle, as is also true in the conflict helix.

For Dahrendorf and Marx, as in the conflict helix, awareness of opposition and the activation of interests transforms latent interests into a new situation, one of class consciousness. In the helix, interest is transformed into a conflict situation that is generated by propaganda, contact, communication, leadership, and so on. For Marx and Dahrendorf the transformation is similarly produced. The important point is that in all three views, class consciousness is not automatic but is engendered by some event (e.g., contact), agent (e.g., a leader), or cognitive transformation (e.g., class propaganda).

For Marx and Dahrendorf, however, the conflict situation (my term) implies manifest conflict. Consciousness is equated with struggle. In the helix, consciousness is but a phase toward struggle. No manifest conflict may occur; for the other side may be too strong, the sanctions too severe, or the inertia of habitual interaction patterns too great. In the helix a balance of powers between opposing class interests may be wholly on the psychological level.

Moreover, Marx and Dahrendorf ignore the inception phase of class conflict--the need for a trigger, for will, for preparations, even if psychological. Thus both stress group organization as intrinsic to class conflict; but organization, which is part of the inception phase, is not clearly delimited from a situation of conflict and actual conflict. In some societies preparations may last for years, while workers stock arms, organize cells, and spread the word. On the surface all is stable; underneath a transformation from class consciousness to overt conflict is underway.

Class struggle or conflict, the active opposition of classes, is of course the meat of class theories. The utilization and importance of political power in the struggle is also recognized. Moreover, the three theories equally recognize the importance of the superimposition of class interests in contributing to the intensity of the struggle. Marx puts this in terms of the generalization of separate factory-specific class conflicts, and the increasing homogenization of classes; Dahrendorf refers to the superimposition of role incumbents, such that the same people are generally in the same authoritative relationship across organizations. I treat superimposition in the same manner.

Conflict leads to balance and a structure of expectations; and this is where Marx, Dahrendorf, and the conflict helix diverge. For Marx, class conflict in conjunction with correlated processes (such as increasing worker poverty) leads to the intensification of the dominance of one class, and eventually the disruption of the class society. Revolution brings the proletariat to power, classes are eliminated, and the state that was necessary to protect the bourgeoisie, gradually disappears. For Dahrendorf, class conflict is a lever of change. The direction of change is indeterminate, except to say that the alteration in social structure is a re-forming of authoritative roles. There is a note of continuous flux here, of balances and new balances. In the helix, the outcome of the struggle is explicit. It is a structure of expectations regulating social interaction, based on a balance among class interests, capabilities, and wills. But the notion of this structure as the equilibrium of values and norms, as a consensual stability, is missing in Dahrendorf. Moreover, this phase as a momentary stasis, one that can grow out of concordance with the underlying balance and itself be disrupted in new overt class conflict, is a perspective unique to the helix. At the philosophical level, the three theories share an emphasis on change, power, and conflict. Conflict is not aberrant, but a natural part of human interaction; and conflict--struggle--can both transform and create societies. Both Marx and Dahrendorf, however, particularize their theories to class conflict, whereas in the helix, class conflict is but the most severe form of social conflict, and class opposition is only one form of opposition among attitudes and interests. All social conflicts are regarded as involving the same conflict process--the conflict helix.


Sociologists, especially Americans, have come closest to Marxist thinking on conflict in relation to status. Some feel that status-oriented analyses provide a meaningful theory of class conflict that supersedes the Marxist view.3 It may be useful, therefore, to clarify the role of status within the helix. For Marx, status, such as wealth or prestige, was usually but not necessarily the outcome of property ownership. Capitalists tended to be wealthy, powerful, and prestigious, and workers were quite the opposite. Statuses contributed to defining the class situation but were not an essential characteristic of it. Status, moreover, is continuous. There are no clear defining breaks, except perhaps the arbitrary high-low status differentiation. Class is dichotomous, however. It is defined relative to property for Marx, and to authority in Dahrendorf"s theory and my view; class and status are correlated, but this correlation does not define class. Class conflicts are generated by social relations based on class. Correlated status differences may contribute to this class conflict, or crosscutting status differences may bleed off class tension. Status is an intermediary variable.

Status differences generate a structure of conflict, to be sure. As I argued in Chapter 18 of Vol. 2: The Conflict Helix, people are oriented in social space by status distances that define opposing attitudes. But the structure of conflict that results from status imbalance and incongruence is largely individual. Clear lines of demarcation are not formed, and conflict groups do not recruit members from balanced versus imbalanced statuses. Rather, the conflict or interest groups that traverse society are formed out of classes, out of the antagonistic attitudes supporting and opposing the status quo.

The confusion here is that those of high status generally support the status quo; those of low status oppose it. Moreover, those of imbalanced statuses generally oppose the status quo, which contributes to their imbalance. They provide leadership and organization. But to emphasize status as a source of pervasive political conflict is to miss the underlying structure, the latent attitudes from which status differences gain their strength. This underlying structure is whether one legitimately commands or obeys.


Marx highlighted the role of property ownership, whether of land or the means of production, in dominance and power. Historically, he saw primary social relations, culture, and ideology as reflecting property relationships. Moreover, political power, the state, was the instrument for maintaining and protecting property relations, and in mature capitalist society, the business of the state was that of the bourgeoisie.

If property were central, what was the effect of the gradual separation between property ownership and control or management that was occurring in Marx's time through joint-stock companies? For some, like Dahrendorf, this trend presaged the gradual transformation of capitalism into a postcapitalist society dominated by managed corporations and bureaucrats. Even in his own time Marx recognized the joint-stock company as significantly altering the nature of the class struggle. Others, like Zeitlin (1973), argue that Marx recognized the separation of ownership and control as simply a transformation in capitalism, realizing that those who control do so in the name of the capitalists and share their class interests. A position on this controversy need not be taken here. At issue is whether it is authority or property relations that provide the most basic vehicle for understanding class conflict.

Property is that over which one legitimately exercises exclusive control. It is a right granted by society (i.e., the state) to authoritatively exercise sovereignty over the property: to exclude others from it or to regulate them in its use. That property which is socially significant establishes a relationship of domination and subordination among people (e.g., property in slaves, in land or resources, or in capital).

Of course property as sovereign control can be that which we can establish and protect with our own power. But with the growth of society, socially significant property is no longer a matter of personal strength, but of law. It is the power of the state that protects and grants exclusive authority. Thus property has no meaning in society except as defined in the state's law-norms. In essence, then, property ownership is an authoritative role; relations of property, as between worker and factory owner, are relations of authority at the state level.

It is partially for these reasons that class conflicts emerging from such authoritative roles are struggles over state power. For ultimately, the class that controls the state controls property rights.

But property rights, again, are command and control over property. Thus even if property is legally vested in shareholders who grant managers the right to control the company, the managers still exercise command over property, and thus stand in a state-sanctioned, authoritative relationship to workers. The separation of ownership and control makes no difference with respect to the locus of authority and the resulting class conflict and struggle.

It follows that the creation of public property, whether nationalized industry or public lands, does not alter the social relationships creating classes and class conflict. Property "owned by the people" is controlled by a few bureaucrats or managers who are given by the state authoritative control over the property. Authoritative roles exist, although their supporting rhetoric is altered, and the superordinate and the subordinate, those commanded and those who obey, still form the stuff of class. Nationalization eliminates socially effective private property; it does not eradicate authoritative control over property and thus over people.

To say that history is the course of property relations breeding power struggles between classes is to confuse universal history with a concrete manifestation in private ownership. Rather, history is the course of authoritative relations breeding power struggles of classes over the status quo. It is a conflict helix--a process of struggle and balance, of historically momentary structures of expectation within which classes coexist; there are periods of social peace, of incremental social change in adjustment to shifts in the underlying balance, of increasing incongruence with the changing class situations, power, and interests, and of social disruption as conflict and possibly violence throughout society serve to create a new balance of authority. 


* Scanned from Chapter 5 in R.J. Rummel, Conflict In Perspective, 1977. For full reference to the book and the list of its contents in hypertext, click book. Typographical errors have been corrected, clarifications added, and style updated.

1. Marx did not write his intended final chapter in Capital on "The Classes." Throughout his writing, however, Marx's observations, comments, and theoretical points provide sufficient detail to patch together the probable structure of his overall argument. This Dahrendorf has done (1959, Chapter 1), and I rely on his interpretation.

2. This comes out most clearly in Dahrendorf's essays (1968).

3. For my analysis of status and coverage of the status literature, see my Chapters 17 and 18 of Vol. 2: The Conflict Helix.

For citations see the Vol. 3: Conflict in Perspective REFERENCES

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