Marx defined “class”not just as a group having certain elements in common. Having certain elements in common was a necessary consideration, but it wasn’t sufficient. To be a “class” as Marx defined it, the group must be in conflict with another class.
Thus we have “class struggle” and “class conflict” as central tenets of Marx simply because class is defined that way. And this has pervaded Western thought to the extent that even when we don’t explicitly define “class” in terms of “conflict” people assume that the classes must be in conflict.
One example is the division of the “working class” and the “wealthy/capitalist/upper class”. Now, historically, there has been some justification for that especially in the old “company towns” where there was only one significant employer and it was a lot harder to just pack up and move than it is today. Employer paying in “scrip” which could only be used in the “company store” and further things that really had the employer acting more like a government than a business, making the employees more subjects than workers. In such a case, the subjects organizing in revolt against their oppressive government (workers forming a union but in more functionally descriptive terms) has a certain logic.
So yes, there certainly have been cases of classes in conflict with other classes, but is it as universal as folk indoctrinated with Marx to the point that they don’t even recognize it as Marxian would have you think?
Well, one thing to consider is that folk aren’t as tied to “class” today as in times past. Economic class? In my life I’ve been through four of the five household income quintiles. (Recent change from a two income to a one income household dropped me one quintile.) In the US 88% of millionaires (2017 data) are self-made. And even if they don’t get “rich”, people generally move through various income levels over time. My own case is hardly exceptional. Three quarters of those American workers who were in the bottom 20 percent of income earners in 1975 were in the top 40 percent sometime over the succeeding 16 years (W. Michael Cox and Richard Alm, “By Our Own Bootstraps: Economic Opportunity & the Dynamics of Income Distribution,”
Annual Report, 1995, Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, p. 8.) Far from defining a “class” in which one lives ones life, income is more likely to simply be a way station as one moves through different income levels in life. Yes, there are some poor who remain poor and there are some people who are born rich and remain so throughout their lives. But that is not the case for the majority of Americans.
Then there is conflict within a class. Consider the “Capitalist” class. (This is itself a misnomer–do you have a pension fund or retirement account? Congratulations you are a “capitalist”. But that is a discussion for another day.) Conventionally we are supposed to consider these “Capitalists” as some monolithic block in competition with the workers. Nothing could be further from the truth. For one thing most of the conflict that the “Capitalists” face is not from workers but from other “Capitalists.” They compete for customers and markets. They compete for resources. And they compete for productive workers (representing “human capital”–another reason that “Capitalist” as a class is a misnomer).
Consider that Ford motor company was paying workers more than their competitors, was running shifts with 40 hour work weeks starting in 1914 (scaling back from 48) because Henry Ford believed the longer hours hurt worker productivity. Some people want to claim that Unions were responsible for these improvements in worker conditions. There’s only one problem: Ford didn’t unionize until 1941. Indeed, the unionization of Ford did not happen until government got involved, and unions obtained political power leading promptly to the unionization of Chrysler and GM with Ford the lone holdout. This led to a rather bitter conflict between union organizers and Ford management but all this was after the 40 hour work week and other improvements in worker conditions. Unionization was not the cause of them.
What did lead to these improvements was that Ford had to compete with other manufacturers–not just of cars since welders, metalworkers, and other folk can find work in other industries too–for productive workers. The pay and other improvements in worker conditions meant he could select from the best workers allowing him to produce more cars at a cost that let him sell that 15 million cars and make a very handsome profit.
The conflict wasn’t between workers and capitalists, but between various capitalists with the workers benefiting. On the flip side that “select from the best workers”? If you wanted that job with, for the time, good pay and good working conditions? You’d better be a more productive worker than the next guy.
The conflict within the classes dominated rather than any conflict between classes. And the result was more commodities provided to society as a whole and an improved standard of living across the board.
The idea of “class conflict” is a pernicious one and one of the legacies of Karl Marx. Indeed, it’s treated as a fact of nature to such an extent that people don’t even recognize it as a Marxian concept. It’s something that people simply accept as true, as “self-evident.” And yet, under even a modest examination it falls apart.