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Conflict Theory

Karl Marx's theoretical perspective is referred to as historical materialism. Marx argues that the dominant ideas and ideals of an age are reflections of the dominant way of life, specifically of a society's mode of production. Marx's historical studies led him to argue that there had been a very long, but structured, historical development of human societies.

In the ancient past, small-scale human groups existed with no developed system of property ownership. Instead, all the resources acquired were communally owned and no class divisions were present. Marx called this a form of primitive communism. As the production of these groups increased, this mode of production was effectively outgrown and a new mode emerged, this time with some private property ownership such as in ancient Greece and Rome. From here, societies developed based on settled agriculture and feudal property relations.

The European system of feudalism was based on a class division between landowners and landless peasants and tenant farmers, who were forced to work for the landowners in order to survive. But the feudal mode of production also reached its productive limitations and the system gave way to the capitalist society.

The first capitalists began to invest in workshops and manufacturing in the sixteenth century; by the time of the French Revolution in 1789, they had grown numerous and powerful enough to become a revolutionary force in history. Under capitalism, class antagonisms were greatly simplified, with society' splitting into two great camps' - the property owners and the workers. The capitalist revolution broke the bounds of traditional feudal production systems, demanding a new discipline and long hours from workers so that capitalists could extract a profit from using their labor power.

Marx expected capitalism itself to give way to another mode of production, communism, brought about by disaffected workers who develop class-consciousness in which private property is abolished and communal social relations are established. Modern communism would have all the benefits of the highly productive capitalist system at its disposal. Marx theorized the inevitability of a workers' revolution which would overthrow the capitalist system and usher in a new society in which there would be no classes - no large-scale divisions between rich and poor. He did not mean that all inequalities between individuals would disappear. Rather, society would no longer be split into a small class that monopolizes economic and political power and the large mass of people who benefit little from the wealth their work creates. The economic system would come under communal ownership, and a more humane society would be established. Marx argued that, in the society of the future, production would be more advanced and efficient than production under capitalism.

In his classic work, Class and Class Conflict in Industrial Society Dahrendorf argues that functionalist thinkers only consider one side of society those aspects of social life where there is harmony and agreement. Just as important, or more so, are areas marked by conflict and division. Conflict, Dahrendorf says, comes mainly from different interests that individuals and groups have. Marx saw differences of interest mainly in terms of classes, but Dahrendorf relates them more broadly to authority and power. In all societies there is a division between those who hold authority and those who are largely excluded from it between rulers and ruled.