Classes in Post-Capitalist Society, Ralf Dahrendorf

From Ralf Dahrendorf, Class and Class Conflict in IndustrialSociety. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1959, pp.241-248.


Classes in Post-Capitalist Society

I: Industrial Conflict



Formulation and application of a theory are two different matters,each of which obeys its own laws and patterns. While the theoryitself can be set out in a highly schematic and “logical” fashion,the analysis of facts would lose much of its color and interest ifforced into the strait jacket of theoretical exposition. Although Ishall indicate when the following analysis of conflict in advancedindustrial society is guided by the theory of social class and classconflict, I shall not attempt to rearrange facts so as to fit theorder of postulates, models, and hypotheses resulting from theconsiderations of the last two chapters. The order of reality ratherthan of theory will guide our analysis in the final chapters of thisstudy, except in this section of this chapter, which serves a specialpurpose in the context of the following analysis.

It is proper to demand that if we dismiss an old theory–as we didMarx’s–and replace it with a new one, the new theory should becapable of explaining both the facts accounted for and the facts leftunexplained by the old theory. Thus, one of the tests of theusefulness of our theory of group conflict lies in its applicabilityto the conditions with which Marx dealt. There is, of course, nointrinsic reason why it should be possible to deal more schematicallywith this historical material than with post-capitalist society.However, in the present context I propose to simplify the task ofreconsidering class conflict under capitalism. I shall refrain fromquestioning the facts described by Marx, and, instead, concentrate onhow these facts appear in the light of the theory of group conflict.This would appear to be a doubtful procedure. All too often thesocieties that appear in the work of sociologists are merelyhistorical constructions borrowed from earlier works or even inventedin order to provide an impressive contrast for contemporary data.Were it not for the thorough documentation of Marx’s work, and forthe deliberate sketchiness of this initial section, I should doeverything to avoid the suspicion of having an uncritical attitudetoward history. As it is, I must ask the reader’s indulgence if thenext few pages leave much to be desired in terms of historicalaccuracy and detail.

The starting point of Marx’s analyses consists in what he himselfvariously calls the “sphere of production,” the “relations ofproduction,” or “property relations.” Clearly, all these expressionsrefer to the industrial enterprise and the social relations obtainingwithin it. For Marx, the enterprise is the nucleus of class war. Interms of our approach, the relevant feature here is that theindustrial enterprise is an imperatively coordinated association.Marx, of course, emphasized the property aspect. This seemsreasonable, in retrospect, since at his time it was legal possessionof the means of production that provided both the foundation ofcapitalist power and the main issue of industrial conflict; but thisis nevertheless too specific an approach to the problem. Industrialenterprise, being an imperatively coordinated association, has in ittwo quasi-groups which we may designate, following Marx, as those ofcapital or the capitalists and of wage labor or the wage laborers.Both capital and labor were united by certain latent interests which,being contradictory, placed them on the opposite sides of a conflictrelation. While the most formal objective of the opposing interestswas, in capitalist society, either the maintenance or the change ofthe status quo of authority, the precise substance of theconflict might, in relation to the specific conditions of thisperiod, be described as a clash between capital’s profit orientationand labor’s orientation toward an improvement of their materialstatus.

The intensity of conflict in capitalist society was increased bythe superimposition of authority and other factors of social status,especially income. Domination meant, for the capitalists, a highincome, while subjection involved for labor extreme materialhardship. There was a clear correlation between the distribution ofauthority and social stratification.

Despite this initial position, large obstacles were in the way oforganization for both quasi-groups in the early stages ofindustrialization. We find here that constellation of factorsdescribed above (p.188) which makes the organization of interestgroups virtually impossible. Lack of leaders and ideologies(technical conditions), heterogeneous modes of recruitment toauthority positions (social conditions), and, in the case of labor,the absence of freedom of coalition (political conditions)–all thesehold industrial conflict for some considerable time in a stage oflatency, in which there are only occasional attempts at organization.As industrial associations stabilize, the conditions of organizationgradually emerge, and both capital and labor form organizations(employers’ associations, trade unions) in defense of what are nowarticulate manifest interests. Industrial class conflict enters amanifest phase of which strikes and lockouts are the most tellingsymptoms.

The situation described so far is that of the sphere of industry.It is characteristic of conflict in capitalist societies, however,that not only authority and social status, but also industrial andpolitical conflict are superimposed one on the other. (l) Thedominating groups of industry were at the same time the dominatinggroups of the state, either in person, through members of theirfamilies, or by other agents. Conversely, the subjected groups ofindustry were as such excluded from political authority. Industry isthe dominating order of society; its structures of authority andpatterns of conflict therefore extend to the whole society.Consequently, the quasi-groups of industry also extend to thepolitical sphere. The industrial quasi-group of capital becomes, asbourgeoisie (to use the Marxian terms once again), the dominant groupof the state, whereas wage labor is, as proletariat, subjected in thepolitical sphere as well. Since, under the particular conditions ofcapitalist society, conflict fronts that characterized industry andsociety were identical, the conflict was intensified to anextraordinary degree.

In the political field, too, organization of conflict groupsproved difficult in the beginning. Insofar as industrial andpolitical quasi-groups were identical, the same factors were at workin the state that tended to prevent industrial organization.Moreover, political restrictions, such as electoral systems, made itdifficult for the proletariat to form effective interest groups.Thus, class conflict was smoldering below the surface of society forsome time, until all restrictions fell and the two classes met openlyin the political arena.

By virtue of the superimposition of various lines ofdifferentiation this conflict was, as we have seen, extremelyintense. Its intensity was further increased by the fact that bothclasses were relatively closed units. Mobility within and betweengenerations remained an exception. (2) Bourgeoisie and proletariatwere strictly separate and largely self-recruiting groups. But inthis period it was not merely the intensity of the conflict but theviolence as well that was extraordinarily great. In industry and thestate, there were virtually no accepted modes of conflict regulation.In the absence of a democratic process that put both parties to aconflict on an equal footing, the subjected class increasingly becamea suppressed class which faced as a solid but powerless bloc theabsolute rule of the incumbents of roles of domination. Because ofthis hardening of the class fronts, there were widespread demands fora complete and revolutionary change of existing structures. Forstructure changes could not slowly grow out of class conflict in thisstage. Immobility and lack of regulation made the penetration of theruling class by members of the subjected class impossible. At thesame time, there were neither institutional channels nor ideologicalprovisions for the ruling class to accept and realize any of theinterests of the proletariat. Thus, it seemed justified to predictthat class conflict in capitalist society tended toward both suddenand radical changes, i.e., a revolution promoted by the proletariatwhich replaces in one stroke the dominant groups of industry andsociety.

Marx carried his analysis of capitalist society approximately tothis point. Although he went considerably further in detail, hiswhole work converges on the prediction of the proletarian revolution.We have seen earlier how at this point Marx became a prisoner ofpreconceived philosophical and, perhaps, political convictions. Thushe did not, or would not, notice that factual developments followedthe course of his predictions only up to a point. The ossification ofconflict fronts and the intensification of conflict began to bechecked both by the very fact of organization of interest groups onthe part of the proletariat and by the structure changes to whichthis organization led. Within industry in particular, signs of thedevelopment of modes of regulation became apparent; trade unionsmanaged to make some of their claims effectively heard and accepted.Marx showed himself a consistent philosopher but a poor sociologistwhen he tried to ridicule such “partial results” and the operation oftrade unions (i.e., industrial conflict, as distinct from politicalclass conflict) in general. His attempt to advocate, despite suchtendencies, an intensification of class war, and his insistence onthe revolutionary goal of the proletariat, document his prophetic andpolitical rather than his scientific self. At this point, we have toreject not only the substance, but the very intention of his work.

Before we try to follow the indicated lines of class conflictsomewhat beyond the point of Marx’s analysis, one clarifying remarkseems in place. It should now be abundantly clear that thetraditional, Marxian concept of class is but a special case of theconcept advanced in the present study. For Marx, classes are conflictgroups under conditions of (a) absence of mobility, (b)superimposition of authority, property, and general social status,(c) superimposition of industrial and political conflict, and (d)absence of effective conflict regulation. Thus, classes are conflictgroups involved in extremely intense and violent conflicts directedtoward equally extremely sudden and radical changes. This is the”traditional” or “historical” concept of class. As against thisconcept, we have removed all four conditions mentioned from itsdefinition and included them as empirically variable factors in atheory of social class and class conflict. In this way, the conceptitself becomes a highly formal and–in this sense–“unhistorical”category; but the theory gains in fruitfulness, range, andapplicability.

Thus, what has happened since Marx are in fact changes in thefactors that contributed to the intensity and violence of theconflicts of his time. Patterns of conflict regulation emerged inboth industry and the state. More and more, the democratic process ofdecision-making gave both parties a chance to realize their goals.The violence of class conflict was thereby effectively reduced. Theinstitutionalization of social mobility made for a certain degree ofopenness in both classes. Absolute deprivation on the scales ofsocial stratification gave way, for the proletariat, to relativedeprivation, and later, for some, to comparative gratification.Finally, the associations of industry and the state were dissociatedto some extent. All these changes served to reduce both the intensityand the violence of class conflict in post-capitalist society, and tomake sudden and radical structure changes increasingly improbable.New patterns of class conflict emerge, to which we shall turnpresently.

It must, of course, be emphasized that, whatever concept or theoryone employs, history cannot be explained solely in terms of class.The changes that separate capitalist and post-capitalist society arenot wholly due to the effects of class conflict, nor have they merelybeen changes in the patterns of conflict. Thus, the subdivision ofauthority positions stimulated by an ideology of rationalization inboth the enterprise and the state is an autonomous process. Thedecomposition of capital and labor by the separation of ownership andcontrol, and by the emergence of new differentiations of skill, hasconsequences for class conflict but is due to other factors. As acomprehensive process the development from capitalist topost-capitalist society remains outside the scope of the presentanalysis. But it should be clear from the preceding sketch that inprinciple our theory of group conflict is applicable, also, to thefacts with which Marx dealt–and I hope it will be clear from thefollowing rather more elaborate analysis in what sense it lendsitself, by generalizing earlier approaches, to a coherent account ofindustrial and political conflict in the contemporary world.


In a sense, Schelsky is undoubtedly right in calling the “oftenheard question . . .: Have we still got a class society today?” a”naive” question (72, p. 62). However, this question is naive not somuch because it is too general to be answered with a plain “yes” or”no,” but because it can be answered without thereby stating anythingsignificant or exciting about post-capitalist society. Are therestill classes? Or, as we can ask more precisely now: Are there stillinterest groups and quasi-groups in the sense of class theory? Thatthere are interest groups in contemporary society can be affirmedimmediately. There are, for example, trade unions and employers’associations, progressive and conservative political parties. It isnot difficult to show that all these organizations are interestgroups in the sense of our definition. Quasi-groups, on the otherhand, may be assumed to exist wherever there are authority relationsand imperatively coordinated associatlons. Is it necessary to provethat there are such associations and relations in contemporarysociety? The state, the industrial enterprise, the churches–tomention only a few– are imperatively coordinated associations whichexist in all modern societies and which, if our theory is right,justify the assumption that there are quasi-groups with conflictinglatent interests within them. And if post-capitalist society hasquasi-groups and interest groups, it has classes also. Like itsprecursor, advanced industrial society is a class society. Conceptand theory of class are still applicable.

By taking this position we differ from a number of sociologistswhose work has been discussed above. But is this difference, asdescribed so far, more than a difference of terminology? Cannot thccharge be leveled against us that we presuppose the existence ofclasses by definition instead of demonstrating it empirically? Can wereally answer the question of whether we still have a class societyas easily as we did?

The assertion that there still are classes because there arequasi-groups and interest groups is indeed less than a definition. Itis, on the basis of class theory, a mere tautology. On the otherhand, the assertion that there are still classes because there areimperatively coordinated associations is more than a definition.Although it presupposes the theoretical and perhaps definitionalconnection between classes and authority relations, it asserts theempirical presence of relations of authority. Social classes andclass conflict are present wherever authority is distributedunequally over social positions. It may seem trivial to state thatsuch unequal distribution exists in associations of post-capitalistsociety, but this assertion nevertheless establishes both theapplicability of class theory and the radical difference from allattempts to describe contemporary society as classless.

Nevertheless, to conclude merely that we are still living in aclass society is as insufficient as it is unsatisfactory. It marksthe beginning, not the end, of an analysis of advanced industrialsociety. For many people, the notion of a class society immediatelyevokes such definite associations that to apply it to a particularsociety might appear to involve a substantial statement of fact. Ishould like to emphasize therefore that I do not regard it as such. Iam concerned, here, not with asserting the applicability of classtheory, but with applying it. If imperatively coordinatedassociations can be shown to be a functional requisite of socialstructures, then the universal existence of classes is postulated bythe same token. By way of empirical generalization we can maintain atthe very least that in many societies there are associations andclasses, and in all known societies social conflicts. Societies donot differ by the fact that in some there are classes and in othersnot. Just as in the sociology of the family we are concerned not withthe existence but with the patterns and functions of the family, sohere we are dealing not with the presence of classes but with theirnature and effect. By confronting capitalist with post-capitalistsociety we want to discover the changed patterns and conditions ofclass formation and class conflict. Historically, the problem of ananalysis of post-capitalist society in terms of class may beformulated as one of the destiny of the “old” conflict betweencapital and labor, bourgeoisie and proletariat. If we project thehistorical problem into the present it becomes transformed into thetask to apply the tool of class theory to some critical features ofpost-capitalist society and to try to contribute in this way to theunderstanding of the society in which we live.

The “society in which we live” covers a multitude of generalities.It is as awkward as it can be fruitful to lump together, insociological analysis, a number of societies under a general term,such as “advanced industrial” or “post-capitalist society.” Most ofthe data presented so far in this study relate to contemporaryBritish, American, and German society. It is an open question whetherthese data, or the conclusions derived from them, apply to French,Italian, Japanese, or Russian society as well and indeed, whetherthere are not significant differences between Germany, Britain, andthe United States which would have to be taken into account. I amwell aware of this problem, and of the criticism to which I laymyself open in not discussing it more elaborately. It is neverthelessmy intention to try to consider some of the features of theindustrial and political life of “post-capitalist society” withoutreferring to specific countries or periods in more definite termsthan by stating my belief that the conclusions of our analysis applyat least to those democratic countries of the West that underwentindustrialization in the nineteenth century, and at most to allsocieties at an advanced stage of industrial development. In thisanalysis, I shall avoid generalities by specifying subject ratherthan time and place. By concentrating on a few salient points, I hopeto pave the way for more detailed investigations. This essay–forsuch it is–does not pretend to answer all problems of conflict inpost-capitalist society.


  • 1 This is one of the points where detailed historical analysis would probably come to correct the factual statements of Marx. While in English society in the nineteenth century industrial power may, indeed, almost automatically have conveyed political power, this is not true, e g, for Germany, where, on the contrary, entrepreneurs were restricted in their exercise of industrial power by the impact of older political elites
  • 2 Here, again, the correctness of Marx’s factual assertions is doubtful. It is hard to see how a new ruling class–capital–can be recruited without mobility, including mobility between the classes. It is obvious here that, even in the sense of our theory, Marx has geared his facts in such a way as to make plausible the extreme civil-war type of conflict which he anticipated.