Page last edited :14/10/2017
- Introducing Marxism
My aim in this document is to introduce some of the main ideas of Marxist theory to students beginning their Advanced Level studies of Sociology and/or Government and Politics. Elsewhere on the site students can find more detailed information on Marxist theories; on the application of Marxist theories in the Sociology of the Family, Education Systems, Social Stratification and the analysis of the State; and on comparisons between Marxism and other form of Socialism.
Click here for recent Guardian article on Marxism by Giles Fraser
Click here for Gramsci and Neo-Marxism [Not the ideal place to start though!] NEW link added October 2017
Click here and here for introductory videos on Marx and Marxism: an ideal starting point. NEW links added June 2015 and March 2017
Click here for an excellent podcast by Dr. Pete Woodcock [University of Huddersfield] on Karl Marx
Click here for a very useful Screen Cast by Steve Bassett of Park College Sociology Department
Click here and here for podcasts [11-18 minutes ] By Prof. David Harvey on The Contradictions of Capitalism NEW links added October 2017 [Via these links you can find longer, more detailed discussions and lectures by Professor David Harvey
Click here for Stephanie Flanders' documentary on Marxism via You Tube. It's back...hopefully for good. Sorry ..It's been withdrawn again! It's back again as of August 2017!
Also if you require only the briefest of summaries of Marxist ideas you could click here for my 12 point summary of this document!
Click here for an introduction to Marxism and the Ruling Class Ideology
Click here for an Assignment on Marxism and Capitalism
Click here for Radio 4 Analysis. Journalist Robin Aitken presents a wide ranging survey of attitudes to Marxism NEW link added June 2016
Click here for an audio discussion on the continuing relevance of the Communist Manifesto. New Link added March 2017
Click here for a detailed LSE audio lecture by Professor Gareth Steadman Jones : Karl Marx : Greatness and Illusion NEW link added November 2016
Click here for Marxism and Contemporary Society
Click here for a PowerPoint: Introducing Marxist Theories of the State
The Scottish Further Education Unit (SFEU) has produced Course Notes and useful student exercises on all aspects of Social Stratification and you may click here and then on the relevant link and scroll down to pages 33-42 for SFEU notes and exercises on Marxism.
Click here for detailed information on Marx, Capitalism and Alienation.
Click here for a YouTube clip of Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times which illustrates the possibility of Alienation under capitalism. Unfortunately there are also elements of sexism in the film but this too might provoke class discussion!.
Click here for an Assignment on Marxism and Capitalism
Click here for a BBC obituary and click here for Guardian items on the death of Eric Hobsbawm
Click here for a 1977 TV documentary on Karl Marx presented by famous Harvard economist J. K. Galbraith[1908-2006]. [YouTube]
New link added November 26th 2012: Click here for a series of short [approx 10 minutes] Podcasts presented on YouTube by "Marxism Today"
New Link added June 2013. Click here for an Observer article by Kevin McKenna arguing the case in favour of revolution in the UK. Notice also the critical comments following the article. What do you think? Also you could relate this article to the current publicity around the political views of Russell Brand in October-November 2013
New link added July 2013 Click here for BBC item by John Gray on Marxism and Capitalism
New links added July 2013 Click here and here and here for short YouTube lectures by radical comedian Mark Steel on Marx and Marxism
New Link added October 2013 . Click here for Guardian article: Why Marxism is on the rise again
New Link added October 2014 Click here for a new video lecture by David Harvey on the contemporary relevance of Marxism.
New Link added September 2017. Click here for video lecture by Professor David Harvey on The Contradictions of Capitalism,.
Karl Marx [1818 - 1883 ] emphasised in his theories that if human beings are to survive it is obviously necessary for them to produce the goods and services necessary for their survival. This led him to develop long term historical theories of social change in which he focussed especially on the economic characteristics of successive historical epochs which described as Modes of Production, distinguishing between the Primitive Communist, the Ancient, the Feudal and the Capitalist Modes of Production. He then provided detailed analyses of the transitions between these and developed theories to explain how the future final transition from the Capitalist to the Socialist [and ultimately Communist ]Mode of Production would occur. In this document I concentrate on Marx' analysis of the Capitalist Mode of Production and on the predicted transition to the Socialist Mode of ProductionMarx believed that 19th Century capitalism was a grossly unfair, unjust system in which the poor were exploited at every turn by the rich. His ideas provided much of the theoretical backing for the revolutionary movements which seized power in Russia, China, Cuba and elsewhere. These revolutions did not usher in the kind of socialist, egalitarian societies that Marx hoped for, but instead, power came to be monopolised by the leaders of Communist Parties of these countries. The workers were still exploited and although living standards did improve, this was not sufficient to prevent the collapse of Communism in the U.S.S.R. and Eastern Europe in the late 1980s. It is important to note, however, that these regimes were not strictly speaking, Communist regimes because the level of economic and political equality implied by Communism was certainly absent.
- The Bourgeoisie and the Proletariat
Capitalist societies can be divided into two major social classes -- the Bourgeoisie and the Proletariat. The Bourgeoisie own almost all of the land, banks, factories and raw materials . [which in Marxist terminology are described as the means of production ] whereas the Proletariat own little or no property and work for wages . Intermediate classes may exist but in Marx's best-known theory, it is suggested that a process of class polarisation will occur whereby the members of intermediate classes will eventually be incorporated into one or other of the two main social classes: i.e. the size of the intermediate or middle classes will decline. (However in his later work, he predicted that the size of the middle classes would increase and modern Marxists have analysed the nature of this growing middle class in considerable detail.)
The Social Relations of Production between the two main classes inevitably involve exploitation and conflict. The Proletariat (the working class) are poorly paid, work long hours in dangerous conditions, are poorly housed, poorly educated and in bad health. They are also unrepresented politically. Trade unions are weak or non-existent; no political party represents the interests of working class people who in case have no voting rights. Meanwhile the Bourgeoisie (the upper class ) exploit the Proletariat. They earn high profits and enjoy a privileged life style at the expense of the Proletariat who earn low wages exactly because the Bourgeoisie earn high profits. That is: workers are exploited in the sense that they receive in wages less than the value of the output of goods and services which they produce and this exploitation of the workers contributes directly to the profits received by the Bourgeoisie.
According to Marx individuals are naturally creative beings with the capacity for self-fulfilment in their work which would in ideal circumstances provide opportunities for individual creativity and work satisfaction as workers recognise that they are producing goods and services which meet real human needs. However although Marx recognised that the development of capitalism led to technological improvement with the potential for fuller human self-development the actual organisation of capitalism has inhibited the liberating potential of improved technology.
Instead , according to Marx, under capitalism the members of the proletariat ,far from experiencing self-fulfilment in their work, actually experience various kinds of alienation or estrangement from the products that they produce, from the productive process, from their own "species being" [that is from their own creative nature] and from other workers.
In summary we can show the relationship between the Bourgeoisie and the Proletariat as follows:
The Bourgeoisie: the small class of property owners who own the means of production
|The social relations of production between the two classes inevitably involves conflict because the profits of the Bourgeoisie derive from the exploitation of the Proletariat who receive in wages less than the value of the goods and services which they have produced.|
The Proletariat: the large class of property-less workers who are employed for wages by the Bourgeoisie
- The Economic Base [or Infrastructure] and the Superstructure
Marx also believed that the economic organisation of capitalist societies would heavily influence other characteristics of these societies. In Marx's terms, the Economic Base [or infrastructure] of capitalist societies would heavily influence the Superstructure of these societies. The organisations of the Superstructure include the political and legal systems, the police and armed forces, "the" family ,the educational system, the mass media and the church. Within the Superstructure perhaps the most significant institutions are the institutions of the state: these include Heads of State [Presidents or Monarchs], central governments and their bureaucracies, legislatures, judiciaries and the organisations of regional, state and or local government, the armed forces and the police .
Under the conditions of C19th capitalism Marx argued that the economic base influenced the superstructure of society in the following ways.
|The organisations of the Superstructure include the political and legal systems, the police and armed forces, "the" family ,the educational system, the mass media and the church .. [The Marxist Louis Althusser distinguished between Repressive State Apparatuses and Ideological State Apparatuses within the Superstructure. This may be discussed in class]|
|The Economic Base determines or heavily influences the organisation and functions of the institutions of the Superstructure so that they help to safeguard the dominance of the Bourgeoisie within Capitalist societies . However for some neo-Marxists the superstructure has considerable autonomy vis a vis the economic base and in some cases may help to determine it. There is great theoretical controversy here!|
|The Economic Base of Capitalist Societies consists of the technological organisation of production [= the forces of production] and the private ownership of the means of production combined with the exploitation of the Proletariat by the Bourgeoisie[= the social relations of production].|
- Marx and the Transition from Capitalism to Socialism
Marx recognised that the operation of capitalist system had led to vast improvements in technology which resulted in huge increases in output which potentially could improve living standards for all. However he believed also that capitalism resulted in the exploitation of the proletariat and that the capitalist system was unstable and contained within itself the seeds of its own downfall.
The Marxist theory has been heavily criticised but has also been defended resolutely by contemporary Marxists. Here are some of the main criticisms.
a. A person's class position depended not only on ownership or non-ownership of wealth but also on their incomes, fringe benefits and opportunities for social mobility. These variables, combined together, described an individual's Market Situation.
b. Capitalist societies could be divided into 4 main social classes: the propertied upper class, the property-less white collar workers, the petty Bourgeoisie and the manual working class.
c. Divisions within these social classes were more important than Marx thought. Such divisions might mean that the working class would never unite and that, as a result, anti-capitalist revolutions simply would not occur.
d. Divisions within classes might occur as a result of divisions of status within these classes. While class, as we have seen, is basically an economic concept, status refers to one's standing or prestige in society. It might be, sadly, that black people have less status than white people in the UK, or that Catholics have less status than Protestants in N. Ireland and these status differences may restrict the unity of the working class.
5.Marx' class theories have been criticised also from Functionalist and Postmodernism perspectives
Critics have argued that Marx overstated the extent to which the organisation of the economic base determined the organisation of the superstructure. They argued that Marx had incorrectly assumed that the capitalist economic system determined how families, education systems, the mass media ,churches and states would operate under capitalism. However Marx did seek to distance himself from extreme forms of economic determinism and neo-Marxists such as Gramsci have certainly argued that the organisations of the superstructure may well act with considerable relative autonomy visa vis the economic base and that it is perfectly possible that the organisation of the superstructure will influence the organisation of the economic base while also admitting the possibility that the economic base will influence the superstructure.
Marxists argue that although modern capitalist societies have elections based upon universal adult suffrage, socialist or social democratic political parties, trade unions and a plethora of other pressure groups the Bourgeoisie still exercises decisive power over the state: according to Marxists the Bourgeoisie remains an economically dominant class and a politically dominant ruling class. However other theorists have argued that power in modern capitalist societies can be better explained in terms of models of classical pluralism or elite pluralism. Nevertheless Marxists reject these theories and continue to support the view that the Bourgeoisie is still a ruling class.
According to his critics the Marxist analysis is fundamentally flawed and has become increasingly inaccurate during the C20th as capitalism changed in ways not predicted by Marx. According to their supporters the political ideologies of Liberalism, Conservatism and Social Democracy offered much more accurate depictions of the capitalism system. in the advanced capitalist economies of Western Europe. Consequently the revolutions predicted by Marx to occur in the advanced capitalist societies of Western Europe simply did not occur.
a. They did not occur because the living standards of most working class people improved very much in the 20th Century.
b. Also, Welfare States developed in capitalist societies which have, for example resulted in better health care and education for working class people and more or less eliminated absolute poverty.
c. Capitalist societies have been democratised. Working class people now have voting rights; they can vote for Socialist or Social Democratic political parties; their interests are protected by trade unions and many other pressure groups so that they are no longer economically exploited and politically powerless as in the C19th.
d. Consequently the working classes of advanced capitalist societies have not evolved from classes in themselves into classes for themselves and have not developed revolutionary class consciousness. In the UK they have been much more likely to support non-revolutionary parties of the Left, Right or Centre than to support Marxist parties membership of which is very small.
e. Weber predicted that where so-called Socialist revolutions do occur, power might pass not to the working class but to the bureaucrats in control of the newly powerful Socialist or Communist political parties. The working class would be relatively powerless both before and after the revolution. Experience in the USSR and elsewhere suggests that Weber may have been substantially correct on this point. The U.S.S.R. became a near dictatorship under Stalin and was still a very repressive regime under subsequent leaders and this led ultimately to the collapse of "Communism" in the U.S.S.R. and Eastern Europe.
It should be noted that Marx claimed to be providing a scientific socialist analysis of capitalism and of the transition from capitalism to socialism . It was on this basis that he criticised the ideas of theorists such as Charles Fourier, Henri De Saint Simon and Robert Owen as "Utopian Socialists" claiming that they had failed to analyse capitalism in detail and that their socialist proposals took no account of the historical laws of capitalist development which, according to Marx would ultimately lead to socialist revolution. In the event history seems so far to have disproved Marx's so-called scientific theories but supporters of Marxism can always say that the theories will prove to be true eventually. What this means is that Marx's theories are actually untestable and many philosophers of science would say therefore that they cannot be described as scientific because the most important characteristic of a scientific theory is that it should be testable.
Clearly then, there are several very important criticisms of Marxist theory and critics have argued that even if it was relevant to the analysis of 19th Century capitalism, by the middle to late 20th Century, it has become irrelevant to the analysis of 20th Century capitalism which was changing in directions not predicted by Marx.
Click here for a recent Guardian article on the resurgence of Marxism.
Click here for Michael Portillo's BBC Radio 4 two part series entitled Capitalism on Trial. Mr Portillo interviews both supporters and critics of capitalism but he himself is a strong supporter of the capitalist system.
Rat Race, Invisible Hand or something in between? The debate continues.