Understanding Class Conflict, Race Conflict, Gender Conflict, and Other Conflict Theories

We explain Marx’s conflict theory and other conflict theories to show how tension between social, political, material, and other forces manifest.

In other words, we describe how the tension between a thesis (a concept) and an antithesis (its contradiction) in the “social sphere” (in social systems like political and economic systems) creates a synthesis (a third result) via conflict. I.e. we describe the dialectic as applied to metaphysical and physical systems, including the socioeconomic system (like Marx did).

First a metaphor, in music, if I play a B note and a D note on a piano in unison, my ear will want to resolve the chord into another note such as a C note (more specifically we could say a G chord resolves to a C chord, but the metaphor is more important here than the minutia of music theory).

The tension created by playing the B and D, naturally calls for a resolution to a C. This metaphor works for conflict theory.

Both harmony and tension result in synthesis. Tension demands it due to the nature of contradiction (often swinging like a pendulum swinging wildly), harmony sits in the pocket naturally (steadily oscillating like a fairly well balanced scale).

This page is about conflict, tension, and release. It is about cooperation and competition, understood in the broadest sense, spoken about under the name “conflict”… as that relates to different conflict theories from the social sciences.

Music Composition Tutorial – 01 Tension and Release.

There is a thesis (an idea) and an antithesis (the opposite of the idea), and the tension between the idea and its contradiction demands a synthesis over time.

I posit a proposition, like “justice is the will of the stronger,” you skeptically question the proposition saying “can justice be the will of the weaker in some cases?” The argument resolves into the next proposition due to the tension. With this, an argument unfolds and we move toward “knowing.”

What Is Justice?: Crash Course Philosophy #40.

This is the dialectic, the Socratic method, Hegel’s theory, Marx’s conflict theory, and consequently the basis for all conflict theories.

What is the Hegelian Dialectic?

So then, from here we can apply this concept to any subject and, given its fundamental nature, it will often work to explain what is happening. This is especially true in the “social sphere” (in terms of social systems like economics, politics, race relations, gender equality, etc).

Labor and capital conflict, socialism arises and a revolution ensues. The next age is ushered in. This is the basis for Marx’s theory of “historic materialism” (the materials or “factors of production” of one era of history, in the case of capitalism “labor and capital,” create tension as capital is funneled away from labor and into the hands of fewer-and-fewer capitalists, which results in a workers’ revolution, which resolves into the next “naturally occurring” cycle of history).

Marxism Today 7: Historical Materialism (Part 1)

The liberal and conservative conflict, the synthesis of western liberal republican democracy arises after the revolution. The next age is ushered in.

The female and male conflict, the synthesis is a struggle that leads to women’s rights and women’s suffrage.

The identity of the African American is simultaneously both inside and outside of the dominant white society, and he thus lives with a feeling of “twoness.” By trying to cultivate and preserve a racial identity, he comes into conflict when trying to fit into white society. The result, a revolution and synthesis.[1]

The two parts conflict, and tension is resolved, then a third identity is created.

Good and evil conflict, and from the ashes comes only one victor.

Take 2 H and put it in a [absurdly tiny] box with just the right forces, and you’ll get H20 (err, sort of).

And so it goes for everything, it is chemistry, it is economy, it is politics, it is history.

Credit Marx if you want, but if you look closely you should be crediting Hegel… and to credit Hegel then you must trace then line back to Plato’s dialectic and being, non-being, and change.

And, why stop there? Blame nature herself for being rooted in a dualistic system of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis (of “mass-energy in motion” in spacetime in electromagnetic relation).

Shoot the socialist messenger, or heed his words. Either way, those who did heed his words came up with a number of compelling theories which we will now define in proper below:

Marx’s Class Conflict Theory: Marx, drawing from Hegel’s idea of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis and his study of the history of revolution and economy came up with a theory that changed the world. The idea can be denoted as a dialectical materialist account of history (a theory that says that in any era of history classes are based on roles filled based on the factors of production, like labor and materials, and this creates classes that come into conflict, results in a revolution of some sort, and the ushers in the next material age). In other words, Marxism says that capitalism, like previous socioeconomic systems, inevitably produces its own gravediggers (the internal tensions, based on the factors of production, that lead to its own destruction, as capital oppresses labor). Marx’s class conflict theory is at the heart of Marxism, and because it is rooted in timeless truths, found its way to the heart of other conflict theories too.

“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 re-constitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.” — Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels The Communist Manifesto

Karl Marx & Conflict Theory: Crash Course Sociology #6. This series also looked at conflict theory, so let’s let it tell the story for a bit.

W. E. B. Du Bois and Race Conflict Theory (Double Consciousness): W. E. B. Du Bois (an African American Marxist) puts an interesting twist on Marx’s conflict theory in his “Strivings of the Negro People” 1897. The idea, as noted above, is that the conflict is internal. An African American is both black and living in white America. This tension constantly eats at the “souls of black folk.” This conflict demands resolution.[2]

“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” — Du Bois The Souls of Black Folk

NOTE: Further we could see the physical struggle of African Americans as a type of class conflict theory based on race (where “labor” and capital take on some wicked meanings by the way). So the important thing to note here is that Du Bois introduces the idea of “internal conflict” (or reintroduces, it is a common theme of history stretching back to Plato’s Chariot metaphor for example).

NOTE: The theme of twoness, human duality (internal and external), and general cognitive dissonance is a major theme of this page. From the triune brain, to the tripartite soul, to the ID, Ego, and Superego, there are many ways to describe these two-or-more conflicting aspects of the human condition which manifests within us and between us in social relations. The exact experience will shift be we talking about workers, race, gender, or general inner psychology, but the gist is the same in all cases.

Dubois & Race Conflict: Crash Course Sociology #7.

Gender Conflict Theory: Putting Du Bois and Marx together, we get feminist conflict theory. The tension between men and women in patriarchal society creates conflict. In the west this conflict resulted in women’s rights, in other countries, not so much. Still, the tension can’t be oppressed any more than then capital can oppress labor or the African American can repress either aspect of their “twoness.” Conflict demands synthesis, synthesis requires some sort of revolution (internal or external).

TIP: If one things of the race, as human, then the race as a whole has a fundamental twoness of male and female. Is it so surprising fundamental dualities like this then arise as constructs in the social sphere? Being is predicated on the materials of being (our genetic materials), so why wouldn’t that conflict arise in naturally in social systems?

Harriet Martineau & Gender Conflict Theory: Crash Course Sociology #8.

General Conflict Theory: Putting all these together we can see a fundamental thread that is occurring. That is we have very real genetic “twoness” (as beings and as a human race), an embryo isn’t defined until Gonadal steroid hormones develop the sex organs. Androgens and Estrogen, at the mandate of the genes, conflict… and a synthesis occurs. Metaphysically, humans are both good and evil. Both compassionate and selfish. Etc. Not only do the materials of production mandate cycles of history, but the genetic materials of life itself demands cycles. What is conflict theory if not Darwinian.  To our core, sentient beings are the product of conflict. From our quanta, to our genes, we are bounded systems in conflict, resolving tension. Thus this metaphor works for the dialectic, for race, for gender, for classism, for economy, for politics, etc. These all arises from the same materials, so why be surprised when they all follow the same general pattern?

Virtue Conflict Theory: Here we would be noting the idea that we are all subject to good and evil, to vice and virtue. We have conflicting desires, and as we grow the tension results in change. What mix comes in a persons 12th year, 16th year, 27th year, 40th year, etc? I’m not sure, the question is very metaphysical. I would posit that we can see people change based on their actions and experience and we know neuroplasticity is correct (that our brains change every day). So, we are (metaphorically speaking) the driven of the chariot, but whether we turn to the aesthetic or the philosophical search for enlightenment is a choice we all have to make. Why are people changed after a traumatic event? Is that their revolution by which their synthesis occurs? What of the collective conscious and the butterfly effect, do we have social responsibility? See also “virtue theory.”

The Problem of Evil: Crash Course Philosophy #13.

Religious Conflict Theory: So, by now you should see the pattern. Any social system, internal or external, gets a conflict theory (internal social system, aka our own psychology; external social system, essentially any subject that gets studied in social science)… and what metaphysical and social widget creates more conflict in ourselves and with others than religion? Of course then, the conflict of religious forces creates its own syntheses, both on the metaphysical (internal and external) and social (internal and external) levels.

Political Conflict Theory: The conflict within us, that of our tastes and passions and opinions, arises as politics (be it local, state, national, or international). Thus, as one might expect given the theme a this point, politics as a social system conflicts in the same way that all the above systems do. Politics is the hashing out of the social, so of course the political relates to all of this. Our natural twoness arises within us, it colors our relations, and it bleeds into our socioeconomic reality. When the male tries to oppress the female, or what have you, the false inequality creates tension. When North or South oppress each other, when party A and B do, or when Nation A and B do, or when international alliance A and B do, the result is the same. See a theory that the left and right are naturally occurring.

ON REPRESSION: Repressing something that shouldn’t be repressed has the same effect as holding back a pendulum with a string. Over time the tension will break the string and the pendulum will swing wildly. When the left or right repress each other, when men and women do, when one culture represses another, or when we repress our own dualistic nature, the repressed part waits in the wings ready to swing wildly when the tension breaks. This being what Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is all about.

Discrimination: Crash Course Philosophy #41.

ON EQUALITY: On this page I don’t use the term “inequality” much. This might seem odd, how can we talk about the oppression of workers, races, nations, and women without talking about how they are diminished by their opposite force? The answer is that there is no natural inequality here, instead there are two naturally equal bits of a whole, one repressing the other, thereby creating a “false inequality.” This false inequality is uncomfortable and it is this tension that truly demands a revolution (as it demands resolution). To oppress an equal is tyranny, to stop a tyrant requires revolution (so to speak). The balancing of the scales is the natural order of things. Here I’ll point to a revolution that works, the Glorious Revolution of 1689 (also known as the bloodless revolution). In other words, to be very clear, “revolution” is a rather metaphorical term. Revolutions of enlightened beings are best served democratically and rooted in philosophical truths.

The Eternal Solution to Conflict and the Folly of Trying to Avoid Conflict

To end, we should point out a rather odd thing that might not seem obvious when one emotionally thinks about class conflict or internal conflict, that is:

Conflict is the essence of existence in many ways, and it is a necessary aspect of everything from a photon to a good story.

We can’t get rid of conflict; not even a strong man can oppress the natural order of things. Instead we need just systems in which we can practice temperance, moderation, and balance. A mixed-republic with the rule of law is an example of this in the political sphere, a mixed-democracy is an example as well, etc.

Even if a workers revolution didn’t produce a tyrant, a push for only labor and no capital upsets the scales.

When a person shoves their animal nature deep inside and looks only to their human instincts, if they repress the animal and reptile nature, they breed a monster of sorts.

In other words, as much as conflict can be nasty, it is necessary. The key is balance.

If capital oppresses labor, or labor oppresses capital, if good evil or evil good, the result is the same (revolution and then resolution).

The goal then is to avoid the need for revolution by practicing correctness in the first place.

This theme is mused on by (oddly) the Philosophy of One Punch Man as featured on Wisecrack Philosophy.

Bottomline: Happiness is the result of justice; learn more about justice and happiness. An imperfect understanding of these things only leads to unhappiness and injustice. We can’t escape twoness, we need to practice moderation and respect the parts as well as the whole. To the extent that our politics and race relations and gender relations all stem from a natural duality present in the human condition, is to the extent that we have to learn to live with them (we can’t destroy or repress them).

The Philosophy of ONE PUNCH MAN – Wisecrack Edition.

TIP: Just in case you want an answer to conflict that isn’t “violent Jacobin or October revolution” (although let us not forget American revolution and Glorious revolution also fit this bill). The general answer would be republican democracy, AKA the spirit of the mixed-Republic. A good metaphor for this is Plato’s Chariot Metaphor. Plato, in other words, had the answer back in 360 BC (illustrated in the same book that teaches the dialectic and defines the mix-Republic by the way, the Republic). That is, using human reason to balance our dualistic nature using a mix of forms, and allowing our enlightened reason to reign in our animal nature… lest we go repressing equal opposites unfairly and thus putting tension on the string (which sometimes breaks and becomes an October revolution… which is “not good”).

Chariot’s Allegory – Plato.

3 Brain Systems That Control Your Behavior: Reptilian, Limbic, Neo Cortex | Robert Sapolsky. The science behind the chariot metaphor.

Freud’s Psychoanalytic Theory on Instincts: Motivation, Personality and Development. The social science behind the chariot metaphor.


  1. The Sociology of W. E. B. Du Bois
  2. Double consciousness

"Types of Conflict Theories" is tagged with: Capitalism, Collective Intelligence, Competition, Cooperation, Economic Inequality, Equality, Individualism and Collectivism, Metaphysics, Plato. Aristotle. and Other Greek Philosophers, Social Contract Theory and the State of Nature, Social Engineering, Socialism, Systems

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