Page last edited:27/06/2015
Click here for an introductory video on Marx and Marxism: an ideal starting point. NEW link added June 2015
Click here for An Introduction to Marxism which contains several criticisms of Marxist theories, Marxist defences against such criticisms and useful links related to the continued relevance of Marxism.
Click here for an excellent, rather more advanced discussion of Marxism suitable for students who already have some knowledge. Very useful although I would not begin with this source...but I would say that, wouldn't I?
Click here for Marxism and Revolution
Click here for the December 2013 edition of Discover Society which contains very useful information on Wealth and Class including summary information on Ralph Miliband's The State In Capitalist Society ...on which see also below
Click here for a new video lecture by David Harvey on the contemporary relevance of Marxism.
Click here for Professor Bob Jessop's audio lecture series [with slides] on Antonio Gramsci.
Click here for a short but very informative article on the continuing relevance of Marxism. NEW link added June 2015
See also new links added at the end of this document
Marx predicted revolution in the capitalist West but in the event revolutions occurred in Russia , China and elsewhere. These societies quickly came to be dominated by the leaders of Communist parties. The poor gained little economically and their political liberties were, if anything, reduced.
The "Fall of Communism" in the USSR and Eastern Europe showed the defects of these regimes. For example, they could not generate the high living standards available in the West. Critics claim that we have nothing to learn from them, except that such experiments should be avoided.
Critics of Marxism have argued that capitalist societies have developed in the C20th in ways not predicted by Marx. For example;
Marx predicted increasing unemployment. In fact since the 2nd World War, there have been prolonged phases of near full employment.
Marx predicted increased poverty. In fact absolute poverty in Western capitalist societies has been much reduced.
Also the poor are protected by the institutions of the Welfare State which was in its infancy while Marx was alive.
It was the case that for much of the C19th, the UK political system operated mainly in the interests of rich landowners and industrialists. These were the economically dominant Bourgeoisie; they were also a politically dominant "Ruling Class".
However, nowadays we have universal adult suffrage, occasional Labour Governments, large trade unions and pressure groups of all kinds so that working class people are represented more effectively at the political level. Politics is not now dominated by a "Ruling Class". Models of Democratic Pluralism are more useful in describing the distribution of power in capitalist societies.
Because of this it has been possible to reform the capitalist system in such a way that revolution is now unnecessary. Capitalism may have developed into Post- capitalism such that Marx has become irrelevant.
As a result of such reforms we now have:
A comprehensive Welfare State as has been mentioned;
Economic policies which result in rising living standards;
A more equal distribution of income and wealth than was the case in the C19th.
Some inequality remains but this can be justified in terms of the so-called Functionalist Theory of Social Stratification in which it is claimed that social inequality is inevitable and beneficial in various ways.
In any case there is now much more equality of opportunity such that everyone has a better chance of rising in the class structure,
Marx argued that the division of labour under capitalism produced Alienation. This is equally likely to occur in Socialist societies.
Marxs analysis of the capitalist class structure cannot be applied very effectively to the late C20th and early C21st. To discuss this it is necessary to be familiar with the theories of Max Weber, among other things.
In addition, a Managerial Revolution is said to have occurred whereby large firms are no longer controlled by major shareholders but by senior managers. Therefore the economic power of the capitalist class is said to have been reduced, although they do remain rich.
Marx is said to have underestimated the importance of the growth of the middle class. In his later work he actually did recognise the growth of the middle class but had little to say about them.
Many members of the working class have experienced steadily rising living standards. They are content with their situation under capitalism. Some affluent manual workers may even have joined the middle classthe so-called embourgeoisement theory.
Divisions within social classes are more important than suggested by Marx as is the distinction between class and status.
For some manual workers the increased complexity of their work has reduced "Alienation". They now find their work more interesting. In any case there will always be some alienating work in any industrial society, socialist or capitalist.
There seems to be little evidence of the development of revolutionary class consciousness among the working class. According to some, postmodernists for example, class has become more or less an irrelevance in many peoples lives.
Arguments such as these may be used to explain why Marxist style revolutions have not occurred in advanced capitalist countries.
Modern Marxists and the Continuing Relevance of Marxism
[Note that it is important especially to study the Neo-Marxist Theories of Antonio Gramsci. I hope to add a new document on this fairly soon]
However modern Marxists reject the above arguments and argue instead that the Marxist critique of capitalism is still relevant in the C21st . Thus modern Marxists and others have challenged all of the above theories of post-capitalism and continue to argue that despite theories of the managerial revolution, democratic pluralism significant changes in class structure that even nowadays that the rich continue to exercise massive economic and political power. Among the criticisms made by Marxists of post-capitalist theories are the following:
By the late 1960s the most important Marxist analysis of the capitalist state was Ralph Miliband's study entitled "The State in Capitalist Society" in which he used the above arguments to criticise post capitalist theories before arguing that a modified Marxist theory of the state offered the best analysis of the indirect political power of the Bourgeoisie over the state even in th e1960s.
Miliband argued firstly that there was very clear evidence that a recognisable Bourgeoisie with dominating economic power continued to exist: wealth and income were still unequally distributed; the theory of the managerial revolution overstated the economic power of managers and understated the continuing economic power of the property owning Bourgeoisie; members of the Bourgeoisie could pass their economic advantages to their children with little difficulty; members of the working class and especially its poorer sections were at a massive economic disadvantage relative to the members of the upper class.
Thus, MiIiband concluded, a dominant economic class continued to exist and to exercise economic power in the private sector. However, could MiIiband also demonstrate that this class exercised decisive power over the State; that it was, indirectly, a Ruling Class and that State activities served its interests often/usually at the expense of the rest of the population?
On this point, Miliband and other modern Marxists would not wish to argue that the power of capital is the only factor determining the direction of State activity but that it is by far the dominant factor and that working class organisations (the Labour Party and the Trade Unions) are engaged in "Imperfect Competition" with it .They may in certain circumstances gain important victories but these victories do not challenge the overall dominance of capital and may in fact, ultimately help to sustain it by sustaining what Marxists consider to be the myth of pluralist democracy.
The further elements of Miliband's analysis may be outlined as follows.
1 The continuing direct role of businessmen in State institutions: a large proportion of Cabinet Ministers have been involved in business and business people have also played an important role in central banking, nationalised industries and such state planning agencies as have existed from time to time and they could be expected to bring a capitalistic bias to government decision-making. However, it is admitted that businessmen fill only a small minority of all state elite positions.
2 However, political, administrative and military elites continue to be drawn from the higher reaches of the middle and upper classes The path to these positions will often be via prestigious public schools and universities and it is assumed by Miliband that this pattern of recruitment results in a powerful value consensus as between different state elites and between them and the dominant economic class. Many members of state elites are part of the dominant economic class or at least, on the fringes of it. There will be a strong tendency for state elites to define the "national interest" in terms of the interests of the dominant economic class and to support policies favouring maintenance or at most marginal change to the capitalist status quo. Differences of opinion may exist on matters of detail but not on fundamentals. Also, where talented working class people are recruited to elite positions, they will recognise that success demands the rejection of any radical views they might have held and, in any case, this evidence of upward social mobility into elite positions, if it is not studied too carefully be used to sustain the-myth of equal opportunity.
3 Miliband also refers to the wealth of the Bourgeoisie as a factor influencing its political power. For example, business pressure groups are well-funded and, therefore, more likely to be effective; business contributions bolster the election campaigns of right wing political parties although pluralist studies appear to call into question the dominance of business pressure groups, critics of pluralism have argued that the power of capital should be seen more in structural and ideological terms which cannot be picked up by pluralist studies and Miliband accepts this line of argument.
4 Developing the idea that "The ideas of the Ruling Class are, in every age, the ruling ideas - the class which has the means of material production at its disposal has control at the same time over the means of mental production", Miliband points to the dissemination of a dominant class ideology via capitalist socialisation processes which is accepted by most members of the State Elites and by much of the leadership of the Labour Party, especially, perhaps, under the leadership Tony Blair. Meanwhile, Miliband argues that many working class people either accept the dominant class ideology or accommodate fairly passively to it and so they are not susceptible to persuasion by radical left ideologies.
Miliband makes the point that political power is visible through its consequences. Data on
the distribution of income and wealth show that the
is the Marxist Theory of the
Additions: November 2013
You may refer to several other documents on my site to find additional information on the contemporary relevance of Marxist theories.
In each case you should consider how the Marxist theories outlined in these documents may be criticised using competing sociological perspectives.