Ralph Dahrendorf & Karl Marx: conflict theory


What is Conflict Theory?

  • Conflict theory generally surrounds the idea that most struggles in society happen because of conflicts between different social classes or groups
  • Each group struggles to attain more resources and because resources are scarce, they must struggle with other groups
  • Groups try to protect their own interests, therefore blocking the progress of other groups 
  • From conflict comes social change

Ralf Dahrendorf’s (1929-present) Conflict Theory

  • Society is always in tension between :
    • consensus and coercion
    • function and conflict

The central questioned of all social thought

    • How do societies stay togather? Two well established positions: 
      • The Utopians (Functional Theory)
        • Represented by the Functional Theory 
      • The Rationalists (Conflict Theory)
        • Represented by Conflict Theory
    • Conflict between the two positions is old. 
      • Hobbes vs. Rousseau
      • Kant vs. Hegel 
  • Utopians are represented by the Functional theory of society
  • Rationalists are represented by the Conflict theory of society
  • The two positions are mutually exclusive in most fields and people, but not is sociology.  
    • Good Sociology uses one in A, another in B and both in C. but does not exclude any.
  • Every Society is at every point subject to the processes of change. Change is everywhere.
  • Conflict is everywhere
  • Every Element in a society contributes to its disintegration and change
  • Every Society is based on coercion of some members by others.
  • In society there is division of labor but  in a division of labor, not every occupation based status is equal.

Dahrendorf’s key concepts : the authority conflict 

  • Different people have different occupation
  • The different occupation have different status
  • People’s status increases or decreases according to the link it has with authority. 
  • In society there are many organizations.
  • Each organization contains two groups
    • super-ordinates (order-givers) with authority
    • sub-ordinates (order-takers) without authority
  • In authority relations there is a fundamental conflict between: 
    • those who have power 
    • and those who do not have power 

Dahrendorf’s key concepts Conflict  of interest 



  • The conflict is fundamentally based on two type of interest
    • Those With Authority: Their INTEREST  is to maintain status quo 
    • Those Without Authority: Their INTEREST is to change status quo

Dahrendorf’s key concepts : difference between power and authority

  • Power is essentially tied to the personality of individuals
  • Authority is always associated with social positions or roles
  • Dahrendorf was most interested in studying authority
  • When someone has authority in one setting, that authority does not extend to other social arenas: a boss holds legitimate authority at work but outside of the work setting they cannot legitimately tell people what to do.  
  • Dahrendorf is only concerned in his presentation with authority

Dahrendorf’s key concepts :The Three Types groups

Quasi groups

Groups that are not well organized because they have latent or natural interest but are well conscious  of their group interest. 

Interest groups

When the latent interest becomes manifest interest then the group becomes conscious about their group interest. Due to this they are organized and can put pressure on the rival groups.

Conflict group

When interest group evolved into an organized group to overthrow the rival group then it is a conflict group.

Dahrendorf’s key argument

  1. Higher the group interest consciousness among quasi groups the more possibility of intergroup conflict between super ordinate and subordinate groups.
  2. More there is a link between organizational authority and the distribution of rewards the more possibility for conflict. 
  3. If the movement of subordinate group to higher position is made more difficult the more there is conflict.
  4. If the economic, political or social goals of the organizations are less met then more there is conflict.
  5. More intense the conflict the more possibility of change.

Karl Marx

Karl Marx (1818-1883) was a socialist theoretician and activist, a major figure in the history of economic , sociological and philosophical thought, and a great social prophet. 

“There must be something rotten in the very core of a social system which increases in wealth without diminishing its misery, and increases in crime even more than its numbers.” -Marx, K. (1859). Population, crime and pauperism.Collected Works, (16).

The main argument of Karl Marx can be summarized as follows:

 (i) The purpose of philosophy is to reconstruct the world and not to explain the origin of the universe.

(ii) That the force which shapes the course of history are primarily economic.

(iii) That society is divided into two classes: owners and workers. 

(iv) That there is always a class conflict going on between the two classes.

(v) That the workers are exploited by the owners who misappropriate the surplus value, which is the result of the workers’ labour.

(vi) That this exploitation can be put an end to by nationalisation of the instruments of production i.e. abolition of private property.

(vii) That this exploitation is leading to greater and greater impoverishment of the workers.

(viii) That this growing impoverishment of the workers is resulting in a revolutionary spirit among the workers and the conversion of the class conflict into a class struggle.

(ix) That as the workers outnumber the owners, the workers are bound to capture the State and establish their rule, which he called the dictatorship of the proletariat.

(x) These factors are irresistible and therefore socialism is inevitable.

I hope I have reported correctly the propositions, which formed the original basis of Marxian Socialism.

DETAILED STUDY OF KARL MARX

Fundamental Concepts (derived from Marx):

1) The “Mode of Production”:  Basic system of production 🡪 Impacts all other social relations

    • “Mode of production” describes the economic base of politics.
    • Societies are assumed to have developed through a series of “modes” of production.  
    • Marx was particularly interested in explaining the transition from the feudal mode of production to Capitalism and, eventually to Socialism.  

2) The “Relations of Production”:  

    • On top of the economic base of society, or mode of production, Marxists assume that there is a political and social superstructure, or “relations of production” which is deeply influenced by the mode of production. 
      • The “social superstructure” is society’s laws, politics, culture and ideology
      • Determined by mode of production (?)  Contentious issue:
        • Relations of production were actually determined by political struggle between different groups in society over the control of the mode of production.  
          • E.g. For example, despite the fact that feudalism was based on aristocratic control over land and agricultural labour, this did not simply determine that there would always be a feudal set of relations of production.  Rather, capitalists, emerging industrial entrepreneurs, were able, through political struggle to alter the relations of production in way that eventually led to the emergence of a dominant capitalist mode of production.
          • Best way to say it . . . :   Marx and history – the dominant group in the dominant mode of production . . . But people make their own history, just . . . . 
    • Marx also argued that societies could simultaneously have multiple modes of production and in particular that during times of transition, such as from feudalism to capitalism, that competing modes of production could coexist for quite some time; thus, Marxists argue for the importance of examining the Social Formation.

3) The importance of history:  Specific historical & geographical settings have different modes/relations of production

  • Each society may have a different balance, or mix, of modes of production and thus the actual social formation of the society must be closely examined before we make assumptions about the relations of production in that society.
  • The reason studying the historical social formation of a society is so important to Marxists is that underling all modes and relations of production is a basic set of social classes.
    • Class, and class analysis is the single most important concept in socialist analysis.  
    • Where liberalism focuses on individuals as the basic unit of analysis, socialist political economy lumps individuals into broad social groupings and attempts to understand those groups, or classes, as the basic unit of analysis.

4) Class: 

    • Each mode of production organizes individuals into classes:
      • Those who own and control the means of production; and 
      • Those who sell their labour  

Key points:

    1.  Classes are social collections of individuals that have shared interests in the distribution of benefits emerging from the mode of production.

2) They often share a similar ideology and values.

      • E.g. in the capitalist mode of production: Capitalists (the bourgeoisie – in traditional Marxist terminology) have a shared set of interests in promoting liberal political economy, a liberal ideology that supports their ability to generate profits and a legal system that ensures their continued private ownership of the means of production.   Workers (the proletariat) have an interest in collectively advancing their own claims to a greater share of the profits emerging from production – whether that be through the collective seizure of capitalist private property, progressive/redistributive tax laws or through unionization and collective bargaining to increase wages.
      • These opposed interests are the basis of the “class struggle” 

Class Struggle

    • While Marx argued that modes of production play a role in determining the superstructure of politics (what laws there will be, or, what the state will do), ultimately all Marxists agree that the real driving force in this process, is class struggle and indeed Marxists see “politics” as a struggle between productive classes for the control of production.
      • This “Drives” history
    • Since several modes of production may exist simultaneously, often political struggles in each society are very complex.  Different factions struggle for political dominance; however, the basic divergence in interests produced by the process of production creates a tension which plays a determining role in political struggles.

Marxist Economics:

The starting point for all Socialist analyses is Karl Marx’s Capital which offers an alternative “Marxist economics” of capitalism to that provided by liberal economics.  Marx developed a number of important points in his analyses of capitalism. Firstly, much like the classical political economists, (Smith and Ricardo) . . . .

1) Labor the basis of all value  

Total direct & indirect labor in production determines “true price” of product.  Marx argued that the value or “true price” of any good, over the long run was determined by how much labour went into producing that good.  

    • [What is indirect and direct labour?]  The total direct and indirect labour used to produce a good determines the value of a good.

Secondly, much like the classical political economists, Marx argued that profits were the engine of growth in capitalist economies, but he argued that profits were based on surplus value

2) Profits based on “surplus value”  Occurred when capitalists kept the difference between how much the labor cost them in producing a good, and how much they could sell that good for

  • Even though capitalists and workers need each other in the process of production, Marx argued that because workers had no choice but to sell their labour (or otherwise starve) while capitalists could choose not to invest their savings (without facing the prospect of immediate starvation) that capitalists had a kind of advantage over workers to artificially reduce their wages.

= This artificial reduction of wages created surplus value.

  • Furthermore since the extraction of this surplus value is the basis of profit, and since profit is the engine of growth in capitalism, 
    • Capitalism always exploitative   Workers had to be exploited or the system would not work.

3) Increases in profit only achieved by increasing extraction of surplus value  Marx argued that the employment of capital (or investment) itself produced no surplus value.  Over the long term, the only way that investors could make profits was by employing people.  The only way profit levels could be increased was by increasing the extraction of surplus value from workers. This could be done either by increasing: 

    • Relative surplus value (which would mean increasing the productivity of workers by forcing workers to work harder or more efficiently), Or by increasing the:
    • Absolute surplus value (by forcing workers to work longer hours for less money).

Marx argued that once created,

4) Capitalism was dynamic – would spread.  Efficiency in organizing production and extracting surplus value made it superior

    • It is important to understand this – Marx and those influenced by Marx assumed that capitalism was extremely efficient – it was much better than any mode of production that had come before; however, unlike liberals, they were deeply concerned about the levels of inequality that capitalism produced.

Capitalism based on fundamental “tensions”:

Once Marx developed this understanding of how Capitalism “worked” he went on to argue that the inherent logic of Capitalism created basic tensions that would lead to crises and even, eventually a complete collapse of the system. Marx argued that the economic competition between capitalists, at the core of the system, created three main problems:

1) Economic concentration: Competitive markets produced “concentration” 

    • E.g. monopolies Eroded market efficiency assumed by neoclassical liberal economics

2) “Falling rate of profit” Competition forced firms to continually expand their investments in new technology and machinery to remain competitive.  Because profits came only from exploiting workers, these investments on their own did not create higher rates of profit.  

    • As the ratio of indirect labour (machinery) grew in relation to direct labour, there would be a steady decline in the rate of profit.  The only way to reverse this trend was by increasing the exploitation of workers – making them work longer or harder, or for less money.

3) Growing exploitation of workers: Falling rate of profit required greater exploitation of workers  Gradually, workers would earn less money with which they could buy goods.  Falling rate of profit led to greater exploitation

    • Produced “crisis of under-consumption” = Recessions and unemployment
      • Marx thought that this trend towards under-consumption would ultimately undermine Capitalism – that capitalism would have to be replaced by some sort of socialism in which consumption was ensured, possibly by abandoning Capitalism’s competitive markets for direct state ownership of the means of production.

Bottom Line: Capitalism prone towards crises and collapse

Capitalism, although volatile, has proven to be extremely flexible and dynamic, and has somehow avoided the complete crises predicted by Marx.