Marxist Perspective on Stratification

Marxists argue that industrial society is divided into a two-class system:

  • The capitalist class (or bourgeoisie) are the minority who own the means of production (land, factories, offices, machinery, etc.). They make money by exploiting their workers.
  • The working class: (or proletariat) are forced to sell their labour power to the capitalists as they have no means of production of their own. This means they can be exploited and are often poorly paid and may be engaged in unsatisfying work.

The ‘base’ and ‘superstructure’ model

The superstructure: Institutions all function in a way that maintains the power of the rich and exploits the workers.

The base: The power of the ruling class comes from its ownership and therefore control of capital, land an industry, which Marx called the means of production.  The working class, on the other hand, depends on the bourgeoisie for employment in order to live.

The superstructure exists to transmit bourgeois ideology and, in particular, to make sure that the mass of society subscribes to ruling-class ideas about how society should be organised and does not complain too much about the inequality that exists          e.g. in income and wealth.

Marx argued that the social relations of production between the bourgeoisie and proletariat are unequal, exploitive and create class conflict.

Capitalism’s relentless pursuit of profit means that wages are kept low as possible and the bourgeoisie pockets the difference between what they pay their workers and the value of the goods produced by workers.

This ‘surplus value-The excess of value produced by the labour of workers over the wages they are paid’ (Profit made) forms the basis of their great wealth.  Moreover, workers lose their jobs as new technology is introduced in order to increase output and therefore profits.

Class conflict is likely to occur and Marx predicted a revolution to overthrow the capitalist system and replace it with a classless, equal society.

Marx argued that capitalism will eventually be replaced by communist society- the means of production will be communally owned.



Both theories are macro approaches to studying society.

Marxists claim that social stratification divides society and is used by the rich and powerful to exploit others.  See it as a mechanism whereby some exploit others, rather than as a means of furthering collective goals.

Are economic relations the only reason why society is stratified today? Why (not)?

Marx is accused of being deterministic or reductionist, in that all his major ideas are based on the economic relationships between the bourgeoisie and proletariat. For example, he argued that all inequalities were ultimately reducible to social class. For example, the conflict between Catholics and Protestants, although religious in nature, would be seen by Marxists as driven by underlying class differences. However, many contemporary conflicts such as those rooted in nationalism, ethnicity and gender, cannot be explained adequately in economic terms.

Is a working-class revolution ever going to happen?! Why (not)?

Marx’s prediction that the working-class would become ‘class conscious’ because they would experience extreme misery and poverty, and therefore seek to transform the capitalist system, has not yet occurred.   Although Western capitalist society has had problems, such as poverty and homelessness, they do have a reasonably good record in terms of democracy and workers’ rights.  Moreover, the living standards of the working-class has risen, which could suggest that the working-class people are sensibly reconciled to capitalism rather than being ‘falsely conscious’.  In other words they appreciate the benefits of capitalism despite being aware of the inequalities generated by it.