Marxist and Neo-Marxist Theories of Social Stratification

Karl Marx lecture in a classroom The Sociology Place

Why does social stratification exist? Karl Marx had a Theory

Karl Marx, a social and economic thinker in the 19th century, had a theory of how societies are organized and why inequality exists. His powerful theories inspired the Communist revolutions in Russia and China, and eventually in Eastern Europe and Vietnam. Because of the popularity of these ideas, sociology includes these as classic and important theories of social stratification.

In this post, we examine Marxist theories of why inequality exists, and how later theorists criticized and built on these theories. These later theorists inspired by Marx are neo-Marxists.

Marxian theory of how societies are organized

Marx thought that there are two main components of societies: Material conditions and ideological structures. Material conditions are the physical elements, such as geographic features (water, land) and economic organization (money and other kinds of “exchanges”). The ideological structures are things like ideas and attitudes.

Marx thought that there is a special relationship between material conditions and the ideological structures:

  • The material conditions of society is what drives sociocultural phenomena, e.g. social stratification.  
  • Ideas are important, but the types and kinds of ideas people have are rooted in the material conditions.

Marx had another term for the material conditions:  the Mode of Production. What is the mode of production? It is a society’s combined level of technological development combined with the overall organization of its economy, including the division of labor (“who does what”). Capitalism is a mode of production. So is socialism. So is Communism. And so on.

What creates the mode of production? Marx had an idea about that, too. He called it the Means of Production, and it consists of:

  1. Technology
  2. Society’s physical environment (landlocked, sea-based, etc.)

An economy uses the means of production to produce goods (e.g. houses) and services (e.g. plumbers). To produce goods and services, there must be a relationship people in society. Marx called these relationships the “relations of production,” and they consist of two things.

  1. Forms of ownership
  2. Relationships between groups

In Marxian theory, stratification arises from owning and controlling the economic resources of society.

Marx thought that society is largely driven by material resources. So, his main question is: Who owns and controls a society’s resources?

If you own and control a society’s resources, you control the society’s ideology that legitimizes — i.e. justifies — stratification. In Marxist theory, ideology and the legitimation of the social stratification system is largely determined by the mode of production.

Marxist Theory of Ownership and Ideology

How do the relationships of production influence ideology?

Those who own and control the means of production use their position to greatly influence what information is produced, the achievement rules, and what people think and believe.  

Marxist View of Economic History

Marx examined thousands of years of human society and developed his view of how societies are organized and, thus, why stratification exists.

We can summarize this long view in a simple table.

Type of SocietyMeans of ProductionForm of OwnershipDegree of Inequality
Primitive CommunismHunting and GatheringCollectiveLow
Ancient SocietyAgriculturePrivateHigh
Marxist View of Economic History

According to Marx, societies progress. The progression does not necessarily lead to less inequality, however. Societies began in hunter-gatherer society, with a collective form of ownership and low degree of inequality. These were pre-industrial and thus agricultural. However, as social stratification theorist Gerhard Lenski also later argued, as pre-industrial societies grew in size and complexity, inequality grew, as well. According to Marx, the form of ownership became privatized and thus inequality increased.

Humanity in Transition

How did societies transition into capitalism? Gradually.

According to Marx, societies became capitalist gradually. These were the steps.

  • Society’s means of production changed from agriculture to industrial.
  • Merchant class developed.
  • Translating material wealth to political power, the merchant class redefined the economy from feudal to capitalist.
  • Merchant class realized their interests and instituted capitalism.

How Did Marx View Social Class?

Marx believed that, after primitive Communism, societies became dominated by the economic struggles between social classes. Marx had a simple view of class: a person’s class position is rooted in their relationship to the means of production. When sociologists who study stratification see a theory that boils everything down to one thing, i.e. one dimension, they refer to it as a unidimensional view of stratification. In Marxism, the economy is paramount.

Marx thought that there were really just two main social classes.

Marxist Two-Class View of Society

Class relations between bourgeoisie and proletariat

The relationship between classes, according to Marx, is rooted in exploitation. What is exploitation? Exploitation is an economic process that occurs when one class compels another to give up more than it receives in return. In capitalism, the bourgeoisie exist and enjoy a common lifestyle BECAUSE of their exploitative relationship with the proletariat.

Marxism and the transition to socialism

Marx argued that socialism would be a collective form of production with collective ownership of goods and services, and thus become low inequality societies.

  • Although society’s means of production remains the same, the economy itself has fundamental problems

There is private ownership of the means of production. This leads to monopoly capitalism, i.e. a growing accumulation of wealth in a few hands.

  • Capitalism, in order to maintain, demands that profits put ahead of “humanity.” This leads to further problems:

Workers will see they are being exploited, realize their interests, and rebel. This would be a “socialist revolution” led by the exploited workers.

When Russia, China, and Eastern Europe put that idea into practice, we find that inequality became political inequality. Russian and Eastern European Communist economies withered and eventually collapsed.

Neo-Marxist Theory of Social Stratification

Sociologists who generally agreed with Marx, but also thought that his theory needed modifications, developed a set of critiques and theories called Neo-Marxism. They argued that there is something wrong with Marx’s unidimensional, two-strata conception of class.

They wanted to modify Marx’s scheme.

The neo-Marxists kept concepts such as the “mode of production” (including means and relations of production), exploitation, and determinants of class position.  However:

  1. Need to account for separation of ownership from control, e.g. managerial capitalism.  Contradictory class locations.
  2. Need to account for the middle class
  3. The political institution is underemphasized.

Ralf Dahrendorf’s Neo-Marxian Theory of Social Class

Dahrendorf addressed the separation of ownership from control in a Marxian theoretical framework. He argued that, in order to identify where classes conflict, we must examine authority relations, i.e. who has power over whom.  

Dahrendorf’s main concept here is “authority relations.” Authority relations always involve subordinate and superordinate relations. Those at the top are superordinate and exercise authority over the subordinate.  Their authority is legitimized by the social position.

Each super and sub-ordinate group has a relationship to the mode of production and thus they form authority classes.  Their relationship to the mode of production determines their authority, i.e. class, position.  Owners and/or controllers of the means of production are the superordinate class.

Class conflict, i.e. that which drives history, according to Marx, is actually based on a struggle between authority classes. 

Erik Olin Wright’s Neo-Marxian Theory of Social Class

Erik Olin Wright was a famous sociology theorist who was a leading neo-Marxian scholar. Here is his view of social class, in a simple form.

As neo-Marxists do, Wright keeps Marx’s emphasis on economic relationship to the means of production. But, Wright disagrees with Dahrendorf that authority relations are what separates bourgeoisie from proletariat. Instead, Wright argues that gradations within the bourgeoisie and proletariat must be identified.

Some groups are contradictory to Marx’s view, i.e. there are class that are in both the bourgeoisie and proletariat:

  • managers and supervisors who control but do not control.
  • Small employers not quite petite bourgeoisie
  • Semi-autonomous employees (professionals, freelancers, etc.)

According to Wright, there are four main Marxian classes:  capitalists, managers, workers and petite bourgeoisie, and each have their own class interests and consciousness.  

For further reading

In earlier posts, we discussed basic concepts of society and stratification, and some classic theories of stratification. We also discussed the meaning of power.

If you want to know more about Marxist and Neo-Marxist theory, consider reading:

Jessop, Bob. “Developments in Marxist theory.” The Blackwell companion to political sociology (2004): 7.

Wright, Erik Olin. “The comparative project on class structure and class consciousness: An overview.” Acta Sociologica 32, no. 1 (1989): 3-22.

Copyright Joshua Dubrow The Sociology Place 2022

Joshua K. Dubrow is a PhD from The Ohio State University and a Professor of Sociology at the Polish Academy of Sciences.

Cover photo Midjourney AI with the prompt, “Karl Marx lecture in a classroom”. The “humanity in transition” painting was created with the help of DALL-E.

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