Sociological Theory/Karl Marx
How do we define Marxism?
In defining Marxism a distinction has to be made between the writings and ideas of Karl Marx, the ideology of Marxism as a sociological perspective between his day and the present, and the politics of communism, socialism, and Labour’s third way. Textbooks on sociology often contrast social systems or structuralism with social action perspectives. They frequently then differentiate between consensus theories (like functionalism) and conflict theories (like Marxism or feminism). These distinctions may arise from the sociological cannon’s axiomatic reliance on a few key historical thinkers providing a basis for almost all modern development of the subject.
Who was Karl Marx?
Sociology can be thought of as a cannon of ideas and thought, stretching back into the nineteenth century. Its thinkers are “dependent on influences from elsewhere – they are not spontaneous individuals, geniuses who somehow spin their theories from thin air.” (Rob Stones 1998). Karl Marx (1818 – 1883) was a university educated German and was influenced by the philosopher Hegel, French revolutionary and socialist politics and English economics. Hegel’s writing provided a technical and theoretical basis for ideas concerning freedom, conflict and contradiction (dialectic logic) and man’s place in the world. This combined with the French tenets of Equality, Fraternity and Liberty along with the pragmatic analyses of economics in England by Adam Smith and David Ricardo. His friend, financier and collaborator Frederick Engels, led Marx to see conflict rather than consensus in society. At the age of 30 he published the Communist Manifesto (1848). He opens saying “the history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggle”. By the time he wrote Das Kapital (1867) he had become more focused on the reality of capitalism and the nature of class struggle (and therefore of society) than the trans-historical and inevitable overthrow of capitalist, antagonistic modes of production. It is important to remember the historical perspective; he lived in a world without television, in which England led the world towards industrialization. Imperial Britain had acquired a quarter of the planet (and its resources) so it is not hard to see why he thought that “as capitalism consolidates its hold around the globe, non-capitalist classes are eliminated and the proletariat expands…”
What resources are available and who controls them influences (almost deterministically) the nature of the superstructure, which is made up of all the non-economic articles of society, such as legal, religious and educational systems. Marxism divides the capitalist economic structure into two broad class strata; the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The bourgeoisie own the means of production, land and factories and buy labour for wages from the proletariat. The proletariat having no means of subsistence themselves, have no choice but to sell their labour for wages to the bourgeoisie. Everyone needs the results of production, food, shelter and commodities. The scarcity of resources leads to a society primarily defined by its economics or infrastructure. In this way Marx thought that the economic base of society provided the foundation for all other features or functions of society, the superstructure. How and to whom the responsibility falls to of first, the funding, production and distribution of agriculture, and second, the provision of all other goods, determines the ruling class and their interests. They, of course, act using their overwhelming economic interests to consolidate their power politically (and culturally according to Gramsci), as well as economically. The legal system, nuclear family and even personal tastes and entertainment are shaped by the ruling class ideology and Marx’s description of capitalism in these terms vividly conveys the contradictions inherent in society. For example, he highlights the collective nature of production, whereby many hundred may work in a factory and yet only a very few own the factory and its equipment (capital) and thereby accrue profit. This is gained through the surplus effort of the workers over the wages paid to them, inspiring the term: ‘wage slaves’. Many people work for the (overwhelming) benefit of very few. Neoliberals might argue that with modern stock markets, in fact many get to own the capital of business. Even if many workers do have pensions (the most frequent type of personal investment) and thereby a stake-holding, this is hidden behind the profit making and exploitative financial market that operates these investments. Only the already wealthy are in a position to genuinely benefit from the big financial institutions.
Marx could not have noticed the damaging of the environment by industrialisation himself, but Marxism certainly points to an ecological limit to the expansion of capitalism. Profits have to come from somewhere and as resources become more scarce, cheaper processing, environmentally friendly or not, will be employed to add value or profit when wages can be depressed no further. In the mean time capitalism has been buoyed up against rapid collapse ever more effectively by advertising. The power of persuasion using the modern media of TV and the Internet has allowed products as unhelpful and destructive as tobacco, guns and financial credit (debt) to be sold in great quantity. People are conduced by advertising to buy what they do not need and their position as wage slaves is consolidated by their growing addiction to consumerism. This false consciousness or reification (Lukàcs and Hegel) distracts the working classes from the true nature of their both economic and superstructural subjugation and their collective potential for overturning the domination by employing their combined class-consciousness to unite. The power of advertising to persuade people to buy that which they do not need is today nearly absolute. Marx may well have viewed television and the Internet as tools of the economic base as well as cultural artefacts.
Antonio Gramsci popularised the term ‘hegemony’ to refer to the importance of popular culture in forming a collective class consciousness and referred to a need for a counter-hegemonic force in the form of intellectuals drawn from and representative of the working class. Both Hegel and George Lukacs might have criticised this view saying that as individuals undertake non-manual labour they lose direct contact with their human essence and as they loose touch become unable to understand the nature of society. This view would certainly have upset Stalin and Zedong but not ‘El Che’ Guevara, who insisted on digging and building at the weekends even when he was in charge of the national bank. In Russia Lenin’s version of Marxism never truly followed the Communist template as his ‘New Economic policy’ allowed a limited capitalist investment to stimulate the economy and create a petty bourgeoisie. This was necessary because Russia was a largely rural country of peasants rather than an industrialised one with an alienated middle class. In fact Marx really envisioned Britain being ripe for his socialist revolution as in 1850 half of all manufactured goods globally were made there. The social suffering and damage of this massive development in rapidly overcrowding, and unplanned cities provided (so he thought) a large enough proletariat. Indeed, despite the lack of violent revolution, Britain now has a NHS and welfare state, as well as being nominally secular, democratic and largely socialist with the Labour party currently in government.
Many of the classic criticisms of Marxism arise either out of its macro-nature or the fact that it is about 150 years old. Since then new ideas have been incorporated into neo-marxist ideology most notably by Antonio Gransci and George Lukacs. Combining Marx’s view of the economy as infrastructure with new manifestations of culture, Gramsci vividly saw the hegemony of the ruling class ideology flooding into peoples lives in ever more powerful and effective media (like new technology such as mobile ‘phones and the internet). In fact the global dominance of capitalism today is so complete that the remaining (self-styled) communist regimes (all 5 of them) all receive the Internet, TV and radio signals and so are (probably fatally) exposed to the hegemony too. On the face of it postmodernism seems to blow Marxism apart simply by recognising the overwhelming complexity of society at any one moment in time. It is right that we will never be able to fully understand the reality of society and its functions, not least because such knowledge would introduce new unknown realities re-challenging our understanding. Conversely the numerically undeniable truth underwriting statistical mathematics proves some aspects of the modernist reality, in particular with regard to economics. Our absolute need to share scarce resources means that our lives are primarily concerned with acquiring the means to live.
Marxism largely ignores the subjugation of women (and other gender issues like homosexuality) and given their historical inability (equally to men) to contribute to the monetary economy it seems reasonable for a historically generated macro-view to ignore them. However, in his Communist Manifesto, Marx addresses patriarchy saying, “Bourgeois marriage is, in reality, a system of wives in common … it is self-evident that the abolition of the present system of production must bring with it the abolition of free love springing from that system, i.e., of prostitution both public and private.” He seems to envisage, with the abolition of class differences, no further innate repression of women as they represent a sub-class of the oppressed classes. Also ethnicity issues and racism are mostly ignored, although they are intrinsically involved when considering issues of class. Finally, the growth of the middle classes in the form of clerical and administrative jobs and the expanding service industry (at least in Britain and the “first world”) has complicated the reality and definitions of class strata.
Having briefly outlined the origins of Karl Marx’s thinking about Socialism the argument has progressed from the role of economics, the existence of contradictions, the nature of the ruling class ideology to some common criticisms. It becomes clear that the Marxist perspective in sociology is still an effective method for examining societies. The macro-nature of the Marxist perspective (and functionalist) neither claims to help explain micro-issues nor assist in thinking about them. That said, it still has limitations in both examining micro-issues and in addressing the twenty-first century world’s post-modernist thinking. The neo-Marxism of Lukacs and Gramsci, in addressing hegemony and culture, help to move on with and beyond postmodernism. Society is complex and getting ever more so. As a template to understand the relations between people and the world in which they live Marxism dutifully conveys the genuine nature of suffering even today.
Hutton, W (1997) The State to Come. London: Vintage.
Stones, R (1998) Key Sociological Thinkers. Hampshire: Macmillan Press.
Cuff, E.C., Sharrock, W.W., Francis, D.W. (1998) Perspectives in Sociology (4th Edition) London: Routlege.
Giddens, A. (2005) Sociology. Cambridge: Polity press.
Marx, K., Engles, F. (1848) The Communist Manifesto. Internet Download.