Fifth Dimension

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Polarization of Classes: Marx and Weber

Posted by fifthdimension on May 14, 2007

The two main classical approaches to the sociological concepts of class and society are those of Marx and Weber. These two masters have influenced almost all subsequent debates and researches on sociology.

Marx’s concept of class generally assumes a fundamental division between the bourgeoisie and the working class, the two primary groups of people similarly related to the means of production. It is indispensable for any analysis of modern societies, which focuses on production and exploitation.

For Marx, production has many inherent possibilities including the possibility for freedom and the possibility for domination and exploitation of one or more classes by the class wielding power. According to Marx, class has more to it than just describing the economic position of different groups. He saw classes as real harbingers of change in society. He also opined that due to wanton exploitation, workers would develop class consciousness, thus developing the identity of their class interests and organize politically for action in order to promote class struggle and revolution.

     Classes are constituted by the relationship of groupings of individuals to the ownership of private property in the means of production. This yields a model of class relations, which is basically dichotomous [since some own and others do not, some work and others live off the fruits of those who labour]: all class societies are built around a primary line of division between two antagonistic classes, one dominant and the other subordinate. (Giddens, 1971, p. 37).

     He believed that the state is merely an instrument of class rule. The state in such a society is a bourgeois state–it is nothing but “a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie” (1848, 223). Hence, the standards of justice, democracy and right are all bourgeois standards. Indeed, in a capitalist society there are forms of parties represent different class interests, including the working class.

However, democratic political institutions function within the limits of the capitalist system. If these are radically challenged then democracy will be suspended. For Marx, society is not merely a collection of separate, competing individuals, although that is the appearance that capitalist society presents.

Throughout history, societies have divided into competing classes, defined structurally and economically in terms of their relationship to the means of production. “In the Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels comment that the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” (Bottomore, 1983, p. 75). Thus, he viewed the bourgeoisie as the owners, and the proletariat as the non-owners, of the means of production. Marx believed that capitalist society was increasingly becoming polarized into “two great opposed camps” of bourgeois and proletarians, which is destined to lead to conflict among these classes. Through its own instruments of development, it is bound to give rise ultimately to its own dissolution–to a revolution that will result in the overthrow of capitalism and to the creation of a socialist order.

The conquest of political power by the working class will lead, firstly, to the creation of a socialist state–a state in which the working class is the ruling class and which functions in the interests of the working class. Thus, the “dictatorship of the proletariat” will replace the “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie”. By the term “dictatorial”, Marx does not indicate that such states have a dictatorial political form, but rather that they rule in the interests of a particular class.

However, the “dictatorship of the proletariat” is only the “first phase” of post-capitalist era. Its ultimate aim is to abolish the private ownership of the means of production, and hence the social and economic basis of class divisions. In addition, Marx believed that the rise of socialist relations of production would set free the productive forces and lead to a great economic development and prosperity. As the material basis of class divisions is dissolved, class differences will gradually dwindle, and with them the need for the state as an instrument of class rule and as a distinct coercive force.

In the stage when communism is to be in full bloom, the state is destined ultimately to “wither away”, as Engels puts it, and “the government of people will be replaced by the administration of things” (1884).  

In a nutshell, Marx sees classes in connection with production and exploitation. However, the actual historical development of capitalism has not borne this out, at least in the advanced industrial societies; though arguably such a polarization has occurred on an international scale.


The character of the social classes of industrial society has changed considerably since Marx wrote in the middle of the nineteenth century, and there has been much debate about whether they can still be understood in Marxist terms.


Max Weber emphasizes the market, consumption and distribution, and regards classes as one


of three phenomena within a society, the others being status, group and party. Weber distinguishes, in addition, four classes and points out that class conflict is common and  

most likely to occur between workers and managers rather than workers and capitalists.  

It is seen that while Marx’s assumption was primarily based on economic exploitation, Weber’s analysis was based mainly on differentiated power. Max Weber’s model embraces three components of stratification—economic, status, and political power.

Status and political power add new dimensions to Weber’s model. Weber believed that people with a certain status had a certain lifestyle that set them apart from others. This dimension of political rank refers to one’s standing in a collectivity or organization whose action is oriented toward the acquisition of social power. Thus, status groups form the social order, classes the economic order, and parties make up the legal/political order. Each order is affected by one another.

Status groups, unlike classes, are generally communities. While classes were purely economically determined, ‘status situations’, in contrast, are those in which the life chances or fate of the members are determined by a specific social estimation of honor, either positive or negative. This can be, though not necessarily, linked to class situation.

The same status group may comprise of both people with and without property. While property can form an important basis for status, property alone is not the key to status, and status “normally stands in sharp opposition to the pretensions of sheer property” (Weber, quoted by Adams and Sydie, p. 187). 

Status honor normally emerges from a specific lifestyle that is expected of all who are members of the group. This means restrictions on social relationships (marrying the right people and being seen with the appropriate people).

Weber notes that political membership or class situation has always been a common source of status groups. In the present day, class situation is certainly the most important factor, for lifestyle one can expect is basically conditioned by one’s economic situation.

Status stratification is based on the monopolization of material and ideal goods and opportunities. This monopolization can be perceived as positive considering that only status group members are entitled to own or use these goods or opportunities. Or it can be negative in that the status group is prohibited from owning or using certain things. There are usually some typical principles of status conventions such as the performance of physical labor as a status disqualification in privileged status groups.

Weber notes that all groups with an interest in the status order react strongly against the idea that status is based purely on economic acquisition. Weber indicates the general effect of the status order: “the hindrance of the free development of the market occurs first for those goods which status groups directly withheld from free exchange by monopolization” (pg. 120).

So direct participation in the economic world is considered as a taboo for some status group usually the most influential ones.Weber doesn’t discard the possibility of classes forming groups, but considers this to be unlikely. The common class situation does not usually lead to social action on the basis of the common class situation.  In order for the proliferation of such social actions, there must prevail proper cultural and intellectual conditions, and the nature of the contradictory market situation would have to be relatively transparent to all.  These struggles are likely to be most clearly expressed when other aspects, such as status differences, are removed. 

Weber notes that there is class conscious organization where (a) there are no groups between the real adversaries,  (b) large numbers of persons are in the same class situation, (c) it is technically easy to organize those in the common class situation, and (d) where the goals of the class are well understood, and this understanding is led by those outside the class (intelligentsia). (Giddens and Held, p. 72)


It is seen that classes are stratified according to relations of production and acquisition of goods. In contrast, status groups are stratified according to principles of their consumption of goods represented by specific lifestyles. Weber points out that Marx’s ‘Proletariat’ is, in fact, an umbrella concept, which covers a wide range of occupational groups whose skills are priced very differently in the market. According to Weber, ‘class situation’ is ultimately ‘market situation’. In his concept of status group, Weber stresses that people evaluate each other, and accord status to certain members of society without being forced to do so. For instance, the
Westminster official occupies naturally higher
status than a postman—certainly, the official has a higher income than the postman. In this example, and in most examples, there is a coincidence of status and class.


However, the village vicar might be accorded a higher status, although he has low wealth. Weber cities the classic oriental example of the Japanese samurai warrior, who is often poor, but accorded high status in Japanese feudal society. Weber’s model is one stratified by class and status, with power a further stratification divided by which parties or groups have power in common. For example, a trade union official may enjoy a high degree of power and status within his peers, but little wealth or prestige; particularly amongst the owner(s) of the factory he and his fellow union members work in.

It is a generally accepted fact that by the first quarter of the twentieth century the increase in commercial administration and technical labor cut across Marx’s bipolar class structure. By this time, the orthodox Marxist concept of a tendency towards radical polarization of class relations within developed capitalist societies proved obsolete.

In wake of this, Weber’s model gave a fresh look and new dimensions to sociological research. 

References:Bottomore, Tom, ed., A Dictionary of Marxist Thought,

University Press, 1983.

Giddens, Anthony, Capitalism and Modern Social Theory: An Analysis of the Writings of Marx, Durkheim and Max Weber, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1971.

Adams, Bert N. and R. A. Sydie, Sociological Theory,
Thousand Oaks, Pine Forge, 2001
Giddens, Anthony and David Held, Classes, Power, and Conflict:  Classical and                    Contemporary Debates,

University of
California Press, 1982).

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