Recently our political discourse here in the US has been replete with references to Class Warfare, so I wanted to devote this blog post - and perhaps continue this topic with ongoing comments - to addressing the meaning of the phrase, where it comes from, and what its implications might be for us today.
Of course the concept of class warfare is a fundamental piece of the Marxist/Communist lexicon, which, like much of the language that emerged from socialist and even social democratic theories and political action in the 19th and early 20th centuries became anathema to American politics during the later cold war era and into the 21st century.
In Marx's original formulation, though, class warfare was not necessarily analogous to conventional warfare in any real way, but rather class warfare was a perennial state of conflict that existed. Marx's social observations and his perceptions of the course humanity would follow were predicated on this fundamental historical analysis. According to Marx all of human history and social interaction could and should be understood within the context of class conflict. He argued that all history is the history of class conflict and that relationships between nations and peoples and individuals must be understood through that lens. Class warfare, in Marx's view, was not something that one created or precipitated, but rather something that always exists, whether we are cognizant of it or not. The creation of class consciousness and the subsequent uprising of the Proletariat (or the broader working class) would be a physical manifestation of class warfare, but even without any direct physical engagement (or I would argue economic or political engagement) that battle had already been joined.
Of course Marx argued that this uprising and the Revolution that would ensue was a historical inevitability that would emerge in western industrialized capitalist states, where the combination of income/wealth gap and urban class consciousness (education) would generate an environment conducive to more visible class conflict.
But as much as Marx was a keen historical and social analyst, his predictions were clearly inaccurate. The social revolution guided by Marxist doctrine did ultimately come, but not to the modernized West, but rather in the economically and socially less developed East in the form of the Bolshevik revolution and the creation of the Soviet Union, whose communist experiment lasted just over 70 years.
Why did Marx get it wrong and what can we learn from that history that might help us understand today's world? I would argue that what Marx had not counted on was the impact of Marxism itself (and related political/ideological movements). In other words, Marx contended that the course he observed of continuing wealth disparity and political disenfranchisement would continue unchecked, and that the industrial west would even further accelerate those divisions. But I would make a case that the presence of trade unions, Marxist organizations, socialist political parties, and other locally, nationally, or even internationally based entities, and the very threat of revolution, compelled those in authority to open up avenues in both the political and economic realms, and even develop innovative social policies, to reduce disparities in wealth and income, bring the working class into the political process rather than outside of it, and thereby put off the prospect of revolution and its accompanying political/social/economic upheaval. In other words, the very embrace of some elements of the welfare state, to a greater of lesser extent in the various countries of the West, created a factor for which Marx had not encountered - allowing for a two way street in which those who were inclined towards Marxism in western societies generally worked within the democratic political processes through Socialist, Social Democratic, and other liberally inclined political parties and by the same token those societies generally incorporated elements of these groups demands thus reducing the likelihood of revolution.
The lesson from history, as I see it, is that we reject the political and economic trappings of the welfare state at our own peril (as embodied by the New Deal and Great Society programs in the United States). Perhaps Marx was right and class warfare already exists - the question we need to ask is whether we want that struggle manifest through gradual or revolutionary means.