class struggle

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class struggle

(MARXISM) any political and economic action (e.g. strikes, political movements) based on CLASS INTERESTS and necessary for the development of CLASS CONSCIOUSNESS and essential for a transition to socialism to occur. See also HEGEMONY, CAPITALISM AND CAPITALIST MODE OF PRODUCTION.
Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Class Struggle


the struggle between classes whose interests are incompatible or contradict each other. The class struggle is the basic content and moving force of the history of all antagonistic class societies.

K. Marx and F. Engels discovered the great law of the motion of history of class societies, “according to which all historical struggles, whether they proceed in the political, religious, philosophical, or some other ideological domain, are in fact, only the more or less clear expression of the struggles of social classes, and that the existence of and thereby the collisions, too, between these classes are in turn conditioned by the degree of development of their economic position, by the mode of their production and of their exchange determined by it” (F. Engels in K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 21, p. 259). The theory of the class struggle made it possible to generalize the endlessly varied actions of individuals and reduce them to the actions of large groups of people that are distinguished according to their position in the system of social production, that is, the classes. Thus, it provided an objective criterion for the discovery of repetition in history, for “the methods by which the individual can be reduced to the social” (V. I. Lenin, Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 1, p. 429), and therefore also for the understanding of the regularity of the historical process.

The theory of the class struggle has an enormous methodological significance for all branches of the social sciences, since it helps make possible the understanding of the real class content of ideological and political struggles in all their forms. As V. I. Lenin emphasized, people always have been and will be foolish victims of deception and self-deception in politics, until they learn to look behind every social phrase, declaration, and promise to see in whose class interests it is.

The elaboration of the theory of the class struggle by Marx and Engels was of decisive significance for the scientific grounding of the necessity of socialism and of the ways to achieve it. The recognition of the need for the dictatorship of the proletariat as the instrument of its class struggle and of the socialist transformation of society is the logical conclusion to be drawn from this theory. Lenin noted: “Those who recognize only the class struggle are not yet Marxists; they may be found to be still within the bounds of bourgeois thinking and bourgeois politics. . . . A Marxist is solely someone who extends the recognition of the class struggle to the recognition of the dictatorship of the proletariat” (ibid., vol. 33, p. 34).

The contradiction of the interests of classes is the source of the class struggle. One can distinguish between antagonistic and nonantagonistic classes depending on the character of this contradiction. The relations between the principal classes of all formations based on the exploitation of man by man are primarily antagonistic, for example, those between slaves and slaveholders, peasants and feudal lords, and proletarians and bourgeois. The relations between the ruling classes of two formations, one succeeding the other, may also be antagonistic (for example, the feudal lords and the bourgeoisie) if their basic interests are incompatible. The transition from one formation to another is realized through a social revolution, which in all the variety of its forms is always the result of and the highest manifestation of the class struggle. Marx and Engels characterized the principal phases of the class struggle before the origin of capitalism in the following way: “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 reconstruction of society at large or in the common ruin of the contending classes” (Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 4, p. 424). Capitalism simplified and revealed the class contradictions, counterposing two large classes to each other—the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The proletariat is the first of the oppressed classes whose class struggle takes on a truly international character and a worldwide scale. Unlike preceding oppressed classes the proletariat conducts a class struggle under the leadership of its political party, which arms it with the scientific understanding of its basic class interests and the path to their realization.

The proletariat conducts its class struggle in three principal forms: economic, political, and ideological. The economic struggle is the struggle for the occupational interests of the workers, such as increased wages, a shorter working day, and improved working conditions. This struggle opposes the attack by the employers on the workers’ living conditions, prepares the workers for the struggle for broader aims, and promotes their revolutionary education and organization. The trade unions, which in the 1970’s unite 250 million workers throughout the world, grew up in this struggle. The economic struggle, especially in contemporary conditions, is intertwined with and develops into the political struggle. The average number of strikes a year in the advanced capitalist countries was 1951–55, 13,211; 1956–60, 12,790; 1961–65, 15,323; and 1966–70, 18,650. There were 260 large-scale general strikes in the advanced capitalist countries from 1960 to 1970, a figure significantly larger than the one for the preceding decade. The strikers do not only present economic demands but are also struggling for the expansion of democratic freedoms and are opposing acts of imperialist aggression. In the conditions of state-monopoly capitalism, the struggle for even everyday economic needs cannot be successful without a political struggle.

Marxists struggle both against reformists, who attempt to reduce the class struggle of the proletariat to an economic struggle, and against the sectarian underestimation of the economic struggle. The political struggle is the highest form of the class struggle of the proletariat. The primary features of this form of the class struggle, taken in its full development, are as follows. First, it signifies a struggle for the basic interests of the proletariat. Second, the political struggle is an all-class struggle. It represents a struggle not of the workers of individual enterprises against their bosses but of the entire class of proletarians against the class of capitalists. Third, the party, the highest form of the class organization of the proletariat, takes shape in the political struggle. The principal aim of the political struggle of the proletariat is the establishment and consolidation of its power. The attainment of this aim is impossible without an ideological class struggle, whose task is primarily that of liberating the proletariat from the influence of bourgeois ideology. The ideological struggle is needed to introduce socialist ideology to the masses of the proletariat, which is necessary in order to transform the spontaneous class struggle into a conscious struggle. The ideological struggle of the party of the proletariat, directed against all forms of bourgeois and reformist ideology, has taken on an especially broad scale today. “This struggle is a reflection, in the spiritual life of mankind, of the historical process of the transition from capitalism to socialism” (Program of the CPSU, 1972, p. 51).

The concept of “forms of the class struggle” is also used in a narrower sense to signify the means and methods of the class struggle, such as strikes, demonstrations, the boycott of elections, the parliamentary struggle, and armed uprisings. Marxism-Leninism rejects seeing as an absolute any one form of the class struggle. Lenin emphasized that the party of the proletariat must know how to use all forms of the class struggle and to apply one form or another depending on the historical circumstances. “The success of the struggle of the working class for the victory of the revolution will depend upon the extent to which it and its party master all forms of struggle—peaceful and not peaceful, parliamentary and extraparliamentary—and their readiness for the most rapid and unexpected shift from one form of struggle to another” (Poln. sobr. soch., vol. 33, p. 41).

An extremely important feature of the class struggle of the proletariat in the modern stage of history is the organic combination of the struggle for democracy with the struggle for socialism. The development of monopoly capitalism into state-monopoly capitalism is accompanied by the attack of the big monopolies on the interests of the working class and the broad masses of people in all spheres. At the same time, the lower and middle urban bourgeoisie experience growing difficulties. Thus, together with the intensification of the principal class contradiction of bourgeois society, that between labor and capital, there occurs a deepening of the contradiction between the majority of the nation and the monopolies. This new arrangement of class forces creates the possibility of establishing an alliance of the working class with the broadest strata of the people in the struggle to liquidate the rule of the monopolies. The struggle for peace, democracy, the defense of national sovereignty, and basic social reforms is the struggle for general democratic demands, around whose solution the proletariat can unite the broadest layers of the people and thus make easier the struggle for socialism. The rapprochement of important sections of the intelligentsia and white-collar workers with the proletariat, the increase in the number of student youth resulting from the scientific and technological revolution, the aggravation of social conflicts, and the increase in the activity of various groups of the population all increase the mass of “combustible material” in the capitalist countries and expand the ranks of potential allies of the proletariat. Today the working class comes forward as the principal and most powerful opponent of the power of the monopolies and as the pole of attraction of all antimonopolistic forces.

National class struggle is closely linked with the class struggle in the international arena. The unification of the forces of the monopolies and the bourgeois state into a united mechanism is also connected with the international monopolies. In the struggle against the growing revolutionary movement, the bourgeois states join in military alliances and blocs, such as NATO, which have as their aim not only the implementation of an imperialist policy in international relations but also, in the case of sharp crises in individual countries, the suppression of revolutionary forces by means of outside intervention.

An essential change in the relationship of class forces in the world arena in favor of the working people has taken place in the modern period. This is connected, above all, with the formation of the world system of socialism, which is the chief conquest of the international working class.

With the victory of the Great October Socialist Revolution and the appearance of socialism in the world arena, a new front of the class struggle was created: the confrontation of two social systems. The relations between the two systems, whatever form they may assume, from the armed repulse of imperialist aggression to peaceful coexistence between states and the economic competition of socialism and capitalism, represent a sphere of the class struggle. The struggle between the two systems expresses the principal contradiction of the modern epoch. The class struggle is also developing today in the countries of the Third World, under the influence of this contradiction. The changing relationship of forces in the international arena has created favorable conditions for the destruction of the colonial system of imperialism and for the liberation of many countries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. The class structure of these countries is marked by a great complexity, since their economic structure has been deformed by imperialism. Capitalist relations in a number of countries are linked with precapitalist features, including feudal and prefeudal ones. In the national liberation struggle against imperialism, which is a general democratic struggle in content, different classes may enter into a united front. With the resolution of the tasks of national liberation, social problems move increasingly to the forefront, and in these problems class contradictions are revealed especially sharply. This, however, does not exclude the possibility of the unification of all progressive forces around the working class, which is the most consistent fighter for the solution of the tasks of national and social liberation.

Historical experience reveals that the class struggle against reactionary forces is the sole path for the liberation of working people. The transition to the socialist path of development and the firm establishment of socialism also are realized through the class struggle.

The establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat does not signify the cessation of the class struggle, but its continuation in new forms and by new means. The proletariat is transformed into the ruling class, and it acquires such an instrument of the class struggle as the new state power. In this connection, a number of forms of the class struggle that had been used by the proletariat, for example, the uprising, fade away, and new forms of the class struggle appear. These may be called state forms. Lenin defined the following new forms of the class struggle of the proletariat: (1) the suppression of the resistance of the exploiters; (2) civil war; (3) the neutralization of the petite bourgeoisie; (4) “utilization” of the bourgeoisie and bourgeois specialists; (5) training in a new discipline.

The first of these forms of the class struggle is universal and necessary for all countries in the transitional period from capitalism to socialism. The second is not necessary for all countries. As the experience of the European socialist countries reveals, with conditions favorable for the working class, such as aid from the socialist countries and the weakening of world capitalism, there is a possibility of avoiding civil war. The Leninist description also embraces new forms of the class struggle of the proletariat that express its directing influence on nonproletarian elements of the working people, such as the peasantry, the bourgeois intelligentsia, and even the backward elements of the working class. The concrete expressions of these forms of the class struggle may be varied. For example, under certain conditions, a policy of the neutralization of the middle peasant (as in the first period of the proletarian revolution in Soviet Russia) may become necessary, and then it may have to be replaced by a policy of firm alliance with the middle peasantry. In the people’s democracies, in most countries it was not necessary to carry out a policy of the neutralization of the middle peasantry; it proved to be possible to establish an alliance with it immediately. However, in these cases also, state leadership of the peasantry by the working class represented a distinctive form of the class struggle.

The basic question of the class struggle in the transitional period is the question “who—whom,” that is, which system will be victorious, socialism or capitalism. Marxism-Leninism rejects both the right-opportunist theory of the fading away of the class struggle, which denies antagonistic contradictions between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, and the leftist theory of the need to inflame the class struggle. The working class, possessing the state power, is not interested in the artificial kindling of the class struggle. The intensification of the class struggle may be provoked by two causes: (1) the actions of hostile exploiting classes enjoying support from the capitalist world; and (2) an offensive by socialist elements against capitalist ones, arousing the increased resistance of the latter.

The class struggle, as a rule, took on less acute forms in the people’s democracies than in the USSR, mainly because of changes in the relationship of class forces in favor of socialism. However, development does not proceed in a direct line, and the class struggle during the construction of socialism can, in connection with a change in internal or external circumstances, intensify at individual periods and assume the sharpest forms, right up to the armed action of the enemies of socialism against the power of the working class, as, for example, in Hungary in 1956. As the events of 1968 in Czechoslovakia revealed, the enemies of socialism are bearing in mind the lessons of the class struggle and may attempt to attain their goals by means of the decomposition of socialism from within, making extensive use of revisionist elements for these purposes (the “quiet counterrevolution”).

The basis for class conflicts disappears with the construction of socialist society. Despite the assertion of left sectarian elements on the inevitability of the class struggle under socialism right up until the victory of communism, the relations between all social groups of socialist society (workers, cooperating peasantry, and intelligentsia) are relations of friendly cooperation. However, the battlefront of the class struggle against the external capitalist world still remains. In socialist society, it is also still necessary to struggle against remnants of capitalism in the consciousness and behavior of people and against the ideological legacy of the old world. Today, when the ideological struggle between the two systems has sharply intensified, the resolute unmasking of the intrigues of imperialism, the communist education of all working people, and the increased ideological activity of the party have all acquired particular significance.


Marx, K. “Naemnyi trud i kapital.” In K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 6.
Marx, K. “Klassovaia bor’ba vo Frantsii s 1848 po 1850 g.” Ibid., vol. 7.
Marx, K. “Zarabotnaia plata, tsena i pribyl’.” Ibid., vol. 16.
Marx, K. “Grazhdanskaia voina vo Frantsii.” Ibid., vol. 17.
Marx, K. “Konspekt knigi Bakunina ‘Gosudarstvennost’ i anarkhiia’.” Ibid., vol. 18.
Marx, K. “Kritika Gotskoi programmy.” Ibid., vol. 19.
Marx, K. F. Bol’te 23 noiabria 1871. (Letter.) Ibid., vol 33.
Marx, K., and F. Engels. Tsirkuliarnoe pis’mo’ A. Bebeliu, V. Libknekhtu, V. Brakke, i dr., 17–18 sent. 1879. Ibid., vol. 34.
Engels, F. “Polozhenie rabochego klassa v Anglii.” Ibid., vol. 2.
Engels, F. “Krest’ianskii vopros vo Frantsii i Germanii.” Ibid., vol. 22.
Engels, F. “K kritike proekta sotsial-demokraticheskoi programmy 1891 g.” Ibid.
Lenin, V. I. “Chto delat’?” Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 6.
Lenin, V. I. “Dve taktiki sotsial-demokratii v demokraticheskoi revoliutsii.” Ibid., vol 11.
Lenin, V. I. “Tri istochnika i tri sostavnykh chasti marksizma.” Ibid., vol 23.
Lenin, V. I. “O liberal’nom i marksistskom poniatii klassovoi bor’by.” Ibid.
Lenin, V. I. “Proletarskaia revoliutsiia i renegat Kautskii.” Ibid., vol. 37.
Lenin, V. I. “O diktature proletariata.” Ibid., vol. 39.
Labriola, A. Ocherki materialisticheskogo ponimaniia istorii. Moscow, 1960. (Translated from Italian.)
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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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