Is the UK becoming a classless society? Part two of six

Russell Haggar

Site Owner

Part Two Marx, Weber, Functionalists and Post-Capitalists


  1. Marx, Weber and the Functionalists: An Introduction

[Click for further information on MarxWeber and the Functionalists]

3.1. Karl Marx

Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Friedrich Engels claimed in The Communist Manifesto (1848) that "The history of all hitherto society is the history of class struggles", and they certainly believed this to be the case in capitalist societies. These capitalist societies had promoted massive economic growth and modernisation, but they were also riven by economic contradictions which would lead ultimately to their demise. Marx recognised that C19th capitalist class structures were complex, and in his historical studies referred variously to landowners, industrialists (the Bourgeoisie), the working class [the Proletariat], the peasantry, the Lumpenproletariat, and to a wide range of intermediate strata. But he also argued in his best-known work that capitalist societies would eventually polarise into two major social classes: the property-owning Bourgeoisie and the property-less Proletariat, which would eventually absorb the above-mentioned classes. (However, in some of his later work he also recognised that the growth of the joint stock company and the increased technical complexity of production techniques and managerial methods would lead to the growth of the intermediate strata; unfortunately, he did not integrate this insight into his general theories of social change.)

C19th capitalism was characterised by mass economic inequality and dreadful working and living conditions for members of the property-less proletariat or working class, and by the concentration of economic and political power in the hands of the property-owning Bourgeoisie. The Bourgeoisie were also a politically dominant ruling class whose dominance was sustained by the operation of the institutions of the superstructure of societies (religious organisations, the family, the schools and the mass media, and ultimately the police and the military). Meanwhile the State, far from being a guardian of the national interest [whatever this means], was in fact a "committee for managing the common affairs of the Bourgeoisie".

Marx also claimed that class conflict between the Bourgeoisie and the Proletariat was endemic and inevitable, since it derived from the economic exploitation of the Proletariat by the Bourgeoisie. This conflict would eventually intensify due to the contradictions of capitalism which would result in the immiserisation of the Proletariat, leading to the growth of revolutionary working-class consciousness and the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist system. Capitalism would then be replaced gradually by a classless communist utopia in which the State would gradually wither away. Thus, in Marxist theory the capitalist system determined the class structure, and the contradictions of capitalism would strengthen working-class consciousness and result in revolutionary class action

Marx predicted that anti-capitalist revolutions were most likely to occur the more advanced capitalist countries  such as Germany, France and the UK, but for a variety of reasons discussed later in this document and elsewhere on this site, such revolutions did not occur. Click here for further information on Marxist theory, and here for the neo-Marxist theories of Antonio Gramsci.

Marx's ideas did provide much of the theoretical backing for the revolutionary movements which seized power in Russia, China, Cuba and elsewhere. These revolutions did not usher in the kind of socialist, egalitarian societies that Marx hoped for, but instead, power came to be monopolised by the leaders of Communist Parties of these countries. The workers were still exploited, and although living standards did improve, this was not sufficient to prevent the collapse of Communism in the U.S.S.R. and Eastern Europe in the late 1980s; and although the Chinese Communist party remains in power, the Chinese economy works primarily on capitalist principles. It is important to note, however, that these regimes were not, strictly speaking, Communist regimes because the level of economic and political equality implied by Communism was certainly absent.

3.2 Max Weber

Max Weber (1864-1920) agreed with Marx that capitalist societies were class societies and that a measure of class conflict might well exist, but in Weber's theories social-class membership depended not only upon ownership or non-ownership of property but also on market situation. This gave rise to an essentially 4-class model of society, comprising the propertied upper class, the property-less white-collar workers, the petty bourgeoisie, and the manual working class. In this model, the propertied upper class were not a politically dominant ruling class because state bureaucracies have their own independent sources of power, and political powers were also dispersed among a variety of competing pressure groups and political parties. Weber also expected the growth of the middle class, and noted that there were important differences within social classes based on differences in market situation but also on differences in status.

Thus, whereas Marx' theories are based round an inherent class conflict between the Bourgeoisie and the Proletariat which will erupt in revolution once the Proletariat have overcome their false class consciousness, Weber argued that although some class conflict might well be present, it would be more muted than that suggested by Marx – for example, because status differences within the working class would undermine working-class unity. Therefore, there was no necessary reason why working-class consciousness and class conflict should increase and lead to socialist-inspired revolution; in any case, even if so-called socialist revolutions did occur, they were likely to result in the consolidation of the power of a new socialist state bureaucracy rather than to the emancipation of the working class, so that the new societies would be socialist in name only. In this respect, Weber was not the first to recognise the potential dangers of excessive state socialist power – for example, this had been recognised much earlier by anarchist theorists such as Proudhon and Bakunin.

Thus, in terms of the Structure, Consciousness and Action approach to social stratification, Weber agreed with Marx that a capitalist class structure existed, albeit a more complex class structure than Marx suggested. But Weber also argued that the probabilities of the intensification of working-class consciousness and of successful working-class revolutionary action were less than suggested by Marx.

3.3 Functionalists

Later, Functionalists would develop theories which suggested that social inequalities in income, wealth, power and status were both inevitable, because they reflected natural differences in individual talents and abilities, and desirable, because they provided the incentives necessary for the effective operation of capitalist systems which would generate the economic growth necessary to provide rising living standards for all.

In Functionalist theories, patterns of social stratification are seen as graduated differences between social strata in income, wealth, status and power rather than in terms of broad social-class differences. In the Functionalist view, there was no reason for social conflict as a result of such differences because such patterns of social stratification were inevitable as they were based on innate differences in individuals' talents and abilities, and are beneficial for all because unequal patterns of social stratification would promote greater incentives to work, save and invest, which would promote greater economic efficiency, higher economic growth and rising living standards for all, including the poorest.

In terms of the Structure, Consciousness Action approach to social stratification, the Functionalists agree that there are gradations of social and economic inequality, but that these gradations do not amount to actual social-class structures, and they expect individuals in the less advantaged social strata to accept their situation because the existing social order will at least guarantee rising living standards for all. Further analysis and criticism of the Functionalist theory may be found here, but for the purposes of this document it is sufficient to note that although Functionalist theories are not couched specifically in social-class terms, they do suggest that substantial economic inequalities are inevitable and desirable.

Thus, although there were important differences in Marxist, Weberian and Functionalist approaches to social stratification, all argued that class inequalities (in the case of Marxists and Weberians) or unequal patterns of social stratification (in the case of Functionalists) were likely to exist.

  1. Post-Capitalist Theories of the 1950s and 1960s

Marxist ideas, especially, have obviously attracted criticism from both conservatives and liberals as well as from more moderate socialists and social democrats. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the German Social Democrat "revisionist" politician Eduard Bernstein called for a revision of social democratic political strategies to take account of social and political developments such as the growth of the middle classes. His ideas were later extended and elaborated by so-called post-capitalist theorists of the 1950s and 1960s, who argued that even if the Marxist theory outlined above appeared relevant to the analysis of 19th century capitalism, it was nevertheless largely irrelevant to the analysis of mid-20th century capitalism, which had evolved in directions not predicted by Marx into a post-capitalist system fundamentally different from the C19th capitalism analysed in Marxist theories.

According to the post-capitalist theorists of the 1950s and 1960s, there were important trends toward greater economic equality between the social classes, and also the economic and political powers of the capitalist class had been significantly reduced. These post-capitalist theories provided support for the notion that class differences in so-called post-capitalist countries were declining significantly, so that societies such as the UK might indeed be evolving in the direction of classlessness. Thus in the post-capitalist view, the economic powers of the capitalist class had declined, as major industries were taken over by the State in the 1940s and 50s (although the privatisation programme of the 1980s and 90s reversed this trend).

Also, the post-capitalist theorists claimed that the power of the property-owning capitalist class was declining because control over private industry was passing from shareholders to specialist managers and technicians who, it was argued, would run industry not only in the interests of the owners but also in the interests of themselves, their workers and the consumer. This was the so-called "managerial revolution" or the "divorce of ownership from control", and according to post-capitalist theorists this would lead to a more socially responsible type of capitalism as managers considered the interests of workers, consumers and the environment as well as the interests of shareholders. (An updated contemporary version of this theory has developed, as it is claimed that modern companies are increasingly animated by a belief in the importance of "corporate social responsibility", although it would be fair to say that many environmentalists are yet to be entirely convinced of these new business motivations.)

Furthermore, the post-capitalist theorists argued, although a politically dominant ruling class might well have existed in Marx's own time, by the 1950s theories of democratic pluralism suggested that political power was increasingly evenly distributed, and that as a result of the rise of trade unions and Socialist/Social Democratic political parties, political power could certainly not be monopolised by one rich, economically dominant class. In the theory of Democratic Pluralism, it is argued that power is widely distributed among several political parties, many pressure groups and among citizens who have votes in regular general elections; and within the overall political system, the State is seen as a neutral arbiter rather than as systematically favouring one particular interest (i.e. the capitalist class) at the expense of all other interests, as is suggested in Marxist theory. There are important studies by Dahl, Hewitt, and Grant and Marsh which give some support to the Democratic Pluralist theory, but it has also attracted several criticisms, and in his later work Robert Dahl distanced himself from theories of Democratic Pluralism.

The post-capitalist theorists claimed also that the overall class structures of capitalist societies was changing with the relative growth of the middle class and the skilled sections of the working class, and the relative decline of the unskilled sections of the working class. Some theorists suggested that the skilled sections of the working class were becoming increasingly affluent and experiencing a process of embourgeoisement: i.e. they were becoming increasingly able to adopt middle-class life styles and as a result were increasingly likely also to adopt middle-class attitudes and values including, perhaps, an increased tendency to vote Conservative rather than Labour.

In addition, maintenance of full employment and the expanded scope of the Welfare State meant that economic inequality as measured by the distribution of income and wealth was declining, that absolute poverty had virtually disappeared, and that equality of educational opportunity was now likely to increase as a result of the expansion and reform of state education. Thus, whereas Marx had predicted the polarisation of the class structure and the immiseration of the Proletariat, post-capitalist theorists argued that class divisions were declining and overall working-class living standards were improving significantly, all of which undermined the Marxist theory that the state is controlled indirectly by the property-owning Bourgeoisie and made Marxist theories of revolution appear increasingly unrealistic.

Thus, the post-capitalist theorists certainly did claim that in several respects class inequalities were declining, and that by the mid-twentieth century, capitalist societies such as the UK might well be moving in the direction of classlessness. However, data on the distribution of income, wealth, power and opportunity have continued to point to the existence of continuing social-class inequalities, which have been analysed by Neo-Marxist and Neo-Weberian sociologists, as well as in the work of Mike Savage and his associates, who have been much influenced by the work of Pierre Bourdieu. However, as we shall also see, theories of classlessness have re-emerged in the work of some late modern and post-modernist theorists.

For Part 3 - Click Here