The limitations and Relevance of Karl Marx’s Theory of Stratification 

Karl Marx views stratification in society from an economic perspective and according to him, struggle between classes is on the basis of economic factors and the differences arising from them. The relevance of his theory can be realized by the fact that even after more than hundred years of his death, his work is crucial to study and explain society and its workings. He has majorly contributed to the discipline of sociology through his theories forming the basis for Conflict Perspective. And his crucial contribution to the world is ‘Marxism’, a political ideology inspired by the works and ideas of Karl Marx. 

relevance of Karl Marx
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Marxism is based on his  most famous work The Communist Manifesto’,  which he wrote with his philosopher friend Friedrich Engels, published originally in 1848. 

Before examining Marx’s theory of stratification in present scenarios, it is important to understand the base and essence of his work.

Karl Marx, Father of Conflict Theory

Karl Marx (1818-1883) was a German philosopher, social theorist and political-economist. One of the classical thinkers of sociology, he is the father of  ‘conflict theory’, which holds that “society is in a state of perpetual conflict because of competition for limited resources.”  

Marx described ‘class conflict’ as the engine of social change and described this conflict between two social classes, “the dominant and the oppressed, or the bourgeoisie (rulers and factory owners) and the proletariat ( factory workers).”

As he was particularly interested in capitalist society rising during his time due to industrial revolution, his whole theory of conflict and stratification revolves around differentiation of classes in capitalist society.

Though he was not a sociologist himself, his work has formed a foundation for the discipline of sociology as theories and concepts given by him aided the discipline with the ‘conflict perspective’ to study and understand society.

It is important to note that unlike other scholars, Marx’s goal was not only to understand society but to bring change in it as he was distressed by the poor and inferior situation of workers in factories. 

The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” ( Marx & Engles, 1845) ; these words are engraved upon his grave. 

Marx’s Theory of Stratification 

The base of stratification in Marxist theory is economic where he divided society into two groups, ‘Haves and Have-Nots.’ In basic terms ‘haves’ refers to the rich people and ‘have-nots’ refer to the poor people; which in turn reflects societal relations as ‘oppressor’ and ‘oppressed.’

Marx divided society into classes which have the economic basis and nature of division of these classes throughout history is based on the ‘mode of production’, while the exploitation of have-nots by haves remains constant, in Marx’s theory of ‘Historical Materialism.’

Mode of Production is the base of Division in Society

In general, “Mode of Production refers to the varied ways that human beings collectively produce the means of subsistence in order to survive and enhance social beings.”

In Marxist terms, “Mode of production is everything that goes into the production of necessities of life, including the ‘productive forces’ (labor, instruments and raw material) and the ‘the relations of production’ (the social structure that regulates the relation between humans in the production of goods).” 

According to Marx, the ‘forces of production’ and ‘relations/ roles of production’ are in constant interplay resulting in the mode of production, which Marx calls, ‘Social Formation.’ 

“The social formation includes not only forces of production and relations of production but also other aspects like family, religion, culture etc. which are byproducts of the interplay.”

Throughout the history of society, people owning the ‘means of production’ exploit the people who have nothing but their labor to sell. Thus ‘relations of production’ between man and man is of domination and subordination.

And this interplay of dominance and oppression between groups of society forms the basis of Marx’s theory of stratification.

Stratification in Capitalist society 

According to George Ritzer, “…Marx’s main interest was in the historical basis of inequality, especially the unique form that it takes under capitalism……….what he mainly sought was a theory about how to change society” (Ritzer, 1983).

In capitalism, Marx divided society into two classes, where “A class is a group of people sharing the same position in the process of production.”

One class is earning profits (haves), which he called ‘Bourgeoisie’ and the other one is earning wages (have-nots), which he called ‘Proletariat.’ 

Bourgeoisie refers to the ‘capitalists’ who own the means of production and exploit proletariats to make profits. Exploitation here by means ‘making use of.’

Capital – “Capital is a broad term that can describe anything that confers value or benefit to its owners, such as a factory and its machinery, intellectual property like patents, or the financial assets of a business or an individual. Even though money itself can be called capital, the word is usually used to describe money used to make things or invest.”

Proletariat refers to wage earners who do not own means of production and must sell their labor in order to survive. They are exploited by bourgeois for labor and their survival dependent on manual, daily or casual labor.

It is the antagonist nature of relation between these two classes that forms the essence of Marx’s theory of class struggle.

Further, we will discuss the present relevance of concepts important in Marx’s theory.

Class Struggle and its Role in Modern Capitalism 

Class Struggle

Class struggle is the economic antagonism between classes due to the socio-economic competition arising from differences in wealth and contradictory nature of interests.

The bourgeoisie or the capitalist class wants to make maximum profits by exploiting the labor of the proletariat or worker class  and minimizing the wages by increasing the ‘surplus value.’

Surplus value – “According to Marx’s theory, surplus value is equal to the new value created by workers in excess of their own labor-cost, which is appropriated by the capitalist as profit when products are sold.”

Thus workers want increased wages which would come from capitalists’ pocket or a share from profit but capitalists want maximum profit which would happen by increasing surplus value of labor by destroying wages of workers. This interplay of contradictory  ‘wants’ comes off  in the form of class struggle.

There are two levels to understanding the concept of Class Struggle by Marx – 

first, his general theory of history, and, second, the critique of political economy culminating in Capital” ( Callinicos, 2020).

General Theory of History 

Marx subordinates the class struggle to the development of the productive forces and according to him, class struggle is the ‘immediate’ motive force of history.

“class struggle operates together with (but subordinated to) the tendency of the development of productive forces to come into conflict with the relations of production” (Callinicos, 2020).

In simpler terms, development of new forces of production, which necessarily is the development of technology in the interest of wealthy group/capitalists to increase productivity,  leads to change in the relations of production since it will result in decrease or change in opportunities of work for workers/ subordinated class. Thus, leading to intensification of class struggle.

Critique of Political Economy

It includes a more complex understanding of Class Struggle. Here Marx noted that capitalists would face intervention from workers as well as state and  in  ‘common interest in preventing the destruction of labor power’, capitals would 

“…shift towards the production of relative surplus-value, which involves raising the rate of exploitation through a higher productivity of labor achieved through the introduction of new, more advanced means of production” (Callinicos, 2020).

Thus, Marx explained the complicated mechanism of capitalism through the concept of ‘relative surplus value’ and he accounts the effects of competition in capitalist economies in ‘Law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall.”

“Marx argued that the competitive struggle among capitalist forms encourages them to invest increasingly heavily in means of production………But, since, according to the labor theory of value that Marx inherited from Ricardo, labor is the source of new value, a rising organic composition of capital implies a fall in the rate of profit. This process, in which rising productivity finds expression in falling profitability, is the capitalist determination of the transhistorical tendency for the forces of production to come into conflict with the relations of production” (Callinicos, 2020). And according to Marx, this would lead to the economical crisis.

Important point in understanding Capitalism through Marx here is that “Capitalism is a system that is driven towards crisis, crises are not accidents but regular and predictable consequences of the particular character of capitalism and antagonism that defines them.” (Callinicos, 2015)

Importance of understanding capitalism through Marx’s lens

Through his expansion of the concept of  ‘Class Struggle’, Marx has highlighted the oppressive system on which capitalism has been established and prospering.

  • Marx has inherited the concepts of class and productive forces from political economists and has expanded them. Where political economists say that history is an expansion of productive power which includes labor, sophisticated knowledge and technology. He argues that productive power is also who controls the process of production and who benefits from it. According to him, relations of production are economic powers which govern any economic system (Callinicos, 2015).
  • Marx views society and stratification from the perspective of conflict and antagonism. He provides a unique understanding of the evolution of history and contribution of class struggle in development of technology.  
  • There is no duality in the thought that the work of Marx is an important tool to understand not only the oppression in capitalist society but also the mechanism of capitalism.
  • His theory provides an answer to the important questions, “How did Capitalism establish ?” 
  •  Attention to be given to presenting crises as a part of the antagonistic nature of capitalism. According to him, crises do not lead to destruction of capitalism itself but they are temporary resolutions produced by antagonism of production. Crises serve as a function within the system, they push back the rate of profit to a point where the system can start expanding again. 
  • Unique nature of Marx’s theory:  Marx is not primarily concerned with just studying evolution of history or how capitalism established itself. But his main motive is to understand capitalism in order to figure out how to destroy it. Thus Marx’s theories are of political value since he provides a voice to the oppressed section of society. He calls for the ‘conscious effort’ by the worker class to organize, revolt against capitalism and overthrow it.
  • In his effort to understand the destruction of capitalism, he worked on identifying ‘mature conditions for revolution.’ According to him, revolution will not occur on its own but only when mature conditions exist. These mature conditions are preceded by the ‘Economic Crisis’ which harms the ‘have-nots.’

   These conditions includes emergence of :

  1. a critical mass of workers.
  2. network of communication among the workers.
  3. emergence/ awareness of a proper ideology given by leadership.
  4. identification of common enemy.
  • Emergence of socialism was not the only possibility given by Marx; since he predicted that  providing the mature conditions for revolution to take place, otherwise a common ruin is also the possibility, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes” (Marx & Engels, 1848).
  • Marx also gave the concept of Alienation to show the drastic outcomes of capitalism. Along with class struggle, the concept of alienation completes the dynamic explanation of the capitalist society as understood by Marx.
    • Alienation is a situation in which a feeling of estrangement and disenchantment is experienced from a group, society, situation and over the individual themself. 
    • It also refers to a situation of powerlessness, isolation and meaninglessness experienced by people.
    • Causes of alienation: maddening work and no expression of creativity. According to Marx, “ bourgeois society, capital is independent and has individuality, while the living person is dependent and has no individuality” (Marx, 1844) 
    • Marx also relates alienation and historical materialism, “history of mankind has double aspect. It was a history of control of man over nature, at the same time, it was history of increasing alienation of man” (Marx, 1844)

Marx’s theory and contemporary experiences in modern capitalist society

As a person living in an era of advanced capitalism, Marx is fascinating but not realistic.

Marx’s views and theories can be argued upon in view of experiences in modern capitalist society and how capitalism as a system has proved its benefits. It’s still going as a strong system with clever ideas to solve the problems threatening its existence. We will analyze how despite being a ‘cruel’ unequal system, capitalism has garnered a major win and impact over other systems of mode of production. 

  • Moving from binary classes to rise of middle class and ‘decomposition of labor’

First, it should be clear that contrary to popular opinion, Marx acknowledges intermediate classes in his book ‘Revolution and counter revolution in Germany.’  But according to his concept of  ‘class polarization,’ all intermediate classes will eventually get absorbed into two poles – Haves and Have-nots, super-rich and lumpen proletariat. 

But opposite to that, capitalism saw the rise of the middle class, which stands on the middle in the economic scale of rich and poor. The shift from agrarian to industrial society and boom in the IT sector contributed to the increased wealth of the educated working section of society, which rose as the middle and managerial class, working for the businesses set up by capitalists.

Rather than engaging in class antagonism, members of the middle class strive to maintain their status and grab economic opportunities through better education.  By constructing space for managerial workers and providing better economic benefits , capitalism has done a great job by making it believable that anyone through attainment of education and skills can create opportunities for themselves and increase their wealth and status in society.

  • Master stroke of Capitalism by ‘Institutionalisation of Class struggle’ and  relevance of class struggle in present times

Class struggle is still a relevant phenomenon and maybe bigger than before but it has attained a new form in capitalist society. Providing space for expression of differences of opinions and making demands of the working class negotiable, capitalism has set up clever systems to tackle class struggle and its repercussions. System has legitimate systems such as trade unions and legalized rights for the protection of rights of workers. 

Most capitalist societies have democratic governments, which ‘ideally’ works for the interests of every citizen including the working class and poor population.

Capitalism has found a clever  solution to the problem of class conflict, where it has eventually provided a negotiating voice to the working class. 

However, ground reality is different and the government does work for the wealthy minority who are capitalists and businessmen who play a huge part in the play of political power by donations to political parties, influencing elections and lobbying for forming policies in their own favor.

  • Minimizing class antagonism by ‘decomposition of ownership, control and capital’ 

Marx stated that, “Capital is dead labor, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking dead labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks” (Marx, 1867). According to Marx, “the true barrier to capitalist production is the capital itself.” Capital gives rise to competition and  accumulation of capital intensifies class struggle and creates conditions for revolution or ‘common ruin.’ 

Ralf Dahrendorf criticized Marx by saying that over the period, capital and ownership has decomposed. With the development of Multinational Corporations and the structure of ‘shares’, there is decomposition of ownership, capitals as well as profits. “The separation of ownership and control has replaced one group by two whose positions, roles, and outlooks are far from identical. In taking this view, one does of course agree with Marx against himself. For it follows from this that the homogeneous capitalist class predicted by Marx has in fact not developed. Capital—and thereby capitalism—has dissolved and given way in the economic sphere, to a plurality of partly agreed, partly competing, and partly simply different groups.” (Dahrendorf, 1959)

The system has become so complex and wide that simple binary opposition of owners and workers is not viable. Companies acquire various levels and complicated processes of working and managing. Division of labor and the role of ‘income’ has moved the play in favor of capitalism.

  • Entrepreneurship and space for creativity in capitalism 

‘Entrepreneurship is the process of developing, organizing, and running a new business to generate profit while taking on financial risk.’ It gives opportunity to the middle class to enter the business world through creation of new ideas, unique products and inventions. The capitalist market is always in search of new ideas to develop business and capitalists in search of investments to maximize profits, thus the trend of entrepreneurship has led to creativity in advanced capitalism. Arguably, the claim to wealth is not exclusive to inherited rich class. 

Making ‘art and expression’ a form of money making through inventions of social media and increasing value of fashion and entertainment, capitalism has provided a new dimension to human creativity. 

Though Marx’s concept of ‘fetishism of commodities’ argued about products having more value than individuals in capitalist society and which is true in the modern world of luxury brands and show-off culture. But it is also true that by exploiting one’s creativity and art in the market, they can raise their economic position and thus social status too. 

  • Attention to Differences other than class and ‘Intersectionality’ 

Marx has emphasized over the class differences and it has been criticized on the basis of  ‘economic determinism.’ There are other forms of discrimination such as caste, gender, sexuality, ethnicity etc. Thus in theory Marx has failed to indulge in other forms of stratification which even divides workers. One person does not have a single identity and can be discriminated against on a number of grounds. Marx has failed on the question of intersectionality, thus his call to unite workers is a half baked argument. 

“It can be no part of any Marxist response to deny the existence or the importance of non-class antagonisms. But it is still open to Marxists to argue that class and class struggle, because they are rooted in the structure of production, has a more fundamental explanatory role” (Callinicos, 2020).

  • Marxist approach adopted in study of other forms of stratification

Marxist approach has proved to be beneficial for understanding the other forms of stratification such as caste and gender. Caste essentially takes the economic form through specific caste belonging to specific class and becoming a criterion for discrimination and exploitation. Even when feminists have criticized Marx for not providing attention to ‘hidden labor’ of women in his theories, ‘Marxist feminism’ has emerged as a crucial strand of feminism. ‘Marxist feminists focused on topics such as women’s work in domestic and public spheres, women’s roles in marriage, women’s sexual practices, and the sexual reproduction of labor power.’

Marx’s theories are an important critical examination of capitalism. And a tool to view society and stratification in society through a particular perspective. Marx’s work proves to be immensely helpful in understanding the differentiation between classes in society and effects of the same on the members of society.  Stratification in the world cannot be fully understood without viewing it through the lens of critical theory. Since stratification and oppression appears to be a universal phenomenon, Marx’s work continues to be of great importance in study and understanding of societies.

Success of Capitalism

The success of capitalism cannot be denied. Even Marx agreed on the fact that capitalism has been the most productive system, world has ever seen. Capitalism as a mode of production is thriving and developing by cleverly creating solutions for its shortcomings. To the extent that in the debate of socialism and capitalism, the latter proved to be the winner most of the time.


Popular opinion is that the successful run of Capitalism has proved against Marx’s theories but it can be argued that his theories have stood the test of time and are still relevant in critical evaluation of social issues. Deeper understanding of Marx’s work reveals that he appealed for conscious effort towards revolution accompanied by certain conditions for it to happen. It would be wrong to conclude that he necessarily predicted the establishment of socialism, it was more of his attempt to provide direction to oppressed workers toward a classeless, oppression-free society. He predicted the revolution or the collective decay. 

After a huge crisis such as the ‘recession of 2008,’ many can argue that the capitalist society is still under its effects and it can be seen as a ‘prolonged crisis’ or ‘continuous decay.’

And most importantly, it cannot be denied that work done by Marx is crucial to understand capitalism as a mode of production and basis of stratification in society.  

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Tamanna Nandal, a passionate master's student in Sociology with a keen interest in human experiences, completed her graduation from UoD. She is currently enrolled at Ambedkar University. When not immersed in academic pursuits, she ventures into the artistic world through poems and photography. Tamanna finds solace in the pages of fiction, fantasy, and short stories, making literature an integral part of her life.