No other single contribution to the theory of industrial society has had an impact comparable to that of Karl Marx's brilliantly inspired critique of capitalism. Although Marx's stature as a modem thinker automatically places him in a rank shared by the likes of Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud and is recognized commensurately by intellectual historians the world over, the ability of his work to command an advantage over other lines of thought that also have found their way into the contemporary view of the human condition is most pronounced in Europe. There, the industrial working class, honored in all the classic texts as the living manifestation of capitalist irrationality, has been idealized by the master's epigones with remarkably little deviation from the original prophecy as the ultimate bearer of social revolution and historical reason. Those who defend capitalism in the United States and contend that their assessment of it is unaffected by any particular ideological influence, however, strongly dispute the universal significance of what Marxists believe to be the fundamental contradictions of the system. They ordinarily do so by pointing to the presence of "countervailing" centers of power in society and by attempting to show that all major interest groups that constitute the American polity, including the industrial working class, historically have had a materially viable, therefore legitimate, stake in the preservation of the established social order.
Each of these competing conceptions of the modem social process harbors its own particular weakness. In the case of the former the working class may be charged with nothing less damning than the betrayal of historical reason in the event that it fails to live up to its revolutionary responsibilities. In the case of the latter there is a tendency to accord far too much significance to the normative and benign aspects of the American social order, in which unusually durable middle-class values and popular expectations are commonly believed to prevail. Those who propound a Marxist view often exaggerate the disintegrative potential of social stratification, whereas their conservative adversaries appear to be all but blind to the likelihood that in the modem age a growing number of Americans merely endure rather than actively endorse the formal