Class and Class Conflict in Industrial Society. Ralf Dahrendorf. Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1959. 42/-.

the sociology of class conflict is one of the most essential theoretical instruments of any socialist who is not merely a Utopian moralist. And it is essential that such a sociology should be continuously kept up to date by the revision of its central principles in the light of new empirical evidence. The weakness of much socialist thought and action today resides in the fact that either it has no theory of class, or that it rests upon a dogmatic reassertion of Marx’s assessment of the class struggle, made in the middle of the nineteenth century. A book like Professor Dahrendorf’s, therefore, could have been one of the profoundest importance for contemporary socialism. It is the more regrettable, then, to have to report that, after raising a great many central issues, the book peters out in a rather academic exercise in formal sociology.

Perhaps the greatest merit of Dahrendorf is the stand which he takes against the main trend of modern sociological theory. For some time this theory has been dominated by the approach called “functionalism”, which was the central creed of British anthropologists like Radcliffe Brown immediately after the war, and which has been adopted by the grand theorist of American sociology, Talcott Parsons. The defect of such theories, according to Dahrendorf, is that they present an “integrationist” model of social systems, in which every activity and institution is regarded as serving the purpose of maintaining the social system in its existing state. Against this position Dahrendorf calls for the frank recognition of the element of conflict in social structure and for the development of a “conflict model” of social systems.

This plea, of course, is in the Marxist tradition, and Dahrendorf well understands the difference between a Marxian theory of class conflict and the analytically distinct question of status systems. After so much confusion of the issues by writers like Lloyd Warner in America, and a variety of empiricist sociologists in Britain, Dahrendorf’s insistence on this point is most welcome. He therefore has an excellent starting point from which to review the literature on class, and to go on to elaborate his own revision of Marxist theory.

The review of the literature which is presented is extremely useful. There is not only an account of the central theses of writers like Burnham, Schumpeter and Djilas, with which most sociologists are now familiar, but also a careful analysis of the significance for Marxists of such a deceptively simple book as Marshall’s Citizenship and Social Class, and a summary of the views of a number of other writers not well known in this country. Especially interesting here is the work of the Soviet writers, Nemchinov and Fedoseyev, of Croner in Germany, and of Geiger in Denmark. Nemchinov is shown breaking out a little from the straitjacket of dogma to try to formulate an adequate account of the role of “intellectuals” in Communist society, and Fedoseyev as formulating a crude theory of power-élites in corporation-dominated late capitalist societies. Croner deals extensively with the role of white collar workers and Geiger with the interesting questions of middle-class political action, and the increasing importance of workers identifying themselves as consumers rather than producers.

Out of all these issues Dahrendorf selects five for special discussion and it must be admitted that each of them is important in any attempt to bring Marx’s theory up-to-date. They are (1) the separation of ownership and control; (2) the changes in skill differentiation and the effect of this on the capacity of the working class for corporate action; (3) the rise of the new middle classes; (4) the increase in social mobility, and (5) the confining of class-conflict within strict institutional boundaries, so that it does not develop into an overall revolutionary conflict.

It is at this point, however, that Dahrendorf’s deficiencies and biases become most obvious. The tendency of each of these sections is to suggest, on the basis of very limited and highly selected evidence, that the actual state of affairs today is almost the exact opposite of Marx’s predictions. This is not, as some might think, because Dahrendorf is a reactionary trying as hard as he can to bury Marx. It is simply because he takes a pure theoreticians’ delight in asking what would happen if the variables in his theory were given different values, and then goes on to speak as though they actually have those values. Thus the existence of purely passive shareholders leads him into a discussion of a state of affairs in which there is virtually no connection between ownership and control at all. This is theoretically interesting, but, if Dahrendorf had read his Insiders, he would have recognised that this is a model only, and has as little connection with reality as Talcott Parsons’ Utopia.