Strengths and weaknesses of conflict theory

Written by walter johnson
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Strengths and weaknesses of conflict theory
Conflict Theory (boucliers, Seoul image by J-F Perigois from

Social life is the dominance of one group over another, and politics is the rhetorical justification of that group's control. This is the main claim of conflict/critical theory. Conflict theory has been one of the dominant modes of interpreting social life throughout most of the 20th century. It is vaguely associated with forms of socialism.

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Critical/conflict theory is based upon the rhetoric of modern politics and who controls the discussion. The definition of words and even the process of reason itself are suspect since all of these things developed as one party began controlling modern society. For moderns, science, democracy and rewards based on social merit are the essential forms of social justification. For critical writers, these three things are also forms of control since they are all weapons in the hands of the bourgeoisie who control money. Science and democracy were never meant to emancipate mankind, but rather are means for the bourgeoisie to remake society in their own interest.


The strength of conflict theory is that it seeks moral ends: the emancipation of humanity from false claims of "universality." Universality is when one group takes power and seeks to justify it on the grounds that it represents "freedom for all." The reality is that it is "freedom for them." Using universalist rhetoric to disguise specific domination is a common means of controlling discourse and political debate. This mode of "unmasking" is one of the most attractive elements of critical/conflict theory.


Critical theory's connection with socialism and statism is its greatest weakness. The ultimate vision of the conflict school is to see a society where all can freely cooperate in the production of social goods. But this assumes that all antisocial elements in the population are based on class rule and its cognates. It assumes, without argument, that human nature is generally good but corrupted by "civilization" in its varied forms. Hence, once "domination" is eliminated, people will then begin to cooperate. This is the "weak link" in the argument of the conflict school.


Critical theory denies the existence of human nature and the permanence of natural forms. This is another of its great weaknesses. Human nature does not exist; it is created by social life and hence is infinitely changeable. Reason also changes as social forms change. All forms of life, in other words, are creations of domination and therefore alienation. Nothing answers to human needs, such as art or religious life, but all is the creation of the structure of control. Ultimately, what are true "human needs" are provided by the critical school itself, reduced to vague slogans about "emancipation" and "cooperation." Revolution is necessary to alter society to make it "just," yet there is no sense that the critical activists who take control of this revolution will use it for the "good of all," as if they are free from the enticements to power.

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