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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 an introductory video on Marx and Marxism: an ideal starting point. NEW link added June 2015

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 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 an excellent podcast by Dr. Pete Woodcock [University of Huddersfield] on Karl Marx

Click here for a PowerPoint: Introducing Marxist Theories of the State

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? 

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 a very useful Screen Cast by Steve Bassett of Park College Sociology Department

Click here for Stephanie Flanders' documentary on Marxism via You Tube. It's back...hopefully for good. Sorry ..It's been withdrawn again!

Click here for "Why Marx was right": an articulate defence of Marxism by Terry Eagleton {Marxist critic and political philosopher]...also via YouTube [about 25mnutes]

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!

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 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.

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 Production

 Marx 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.

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.

  1. Under capitalism it is the capitalists, motivated by the desire for profit rather than the desire to meet real human needs who decide which goods and services will be produced and  the prices at which they will be sold. The workers  must accept that it is the capitalists rather than themselves who determine the ultimate purpose of production : i.e. profit  so that the workers are said to be alienated from the goods and services which they have actually produced. [It must be recognised that in many cases goods produced for profit do also meet real human need  but that in other cases it is the creation of false needs via advertising which help to generate profit.]
  2. Under capitalism workers have little or no overall control over the production process which is often based upon the division of labour involving the breaking down of the production process into a series of simple repetitive and boring tasks which give no opportunity for worker creativity. It has been said that under conditions of modern capitalism many workers exercise more skill driving to work [if they can afford a car] than in their daily work while in Marx's analysis of C19th capitalism work becomes a means to an end [earning the money necessary to survive] rather than an end in itself and "as soon as there is no physical or other compulsion men flee from labour like the plague."
  3. Under capitalism because workers have no control over the ultimate purpose of production, the destination of the goods and services they produce  and the organisation  of actual production processes they are said to be alienated from their own species being: that is they are denied the opportunity to fulfil themselves in creative, socially useful work.
  4. They are alienated also  from other people in capitalist society. The capitalists perceive their workers not as individuals with a wide range of interesting and positive human characteristics but merely as sources of labour power to be exploited in the pursuit of profit while in the wider society workers are defined in terms of their occupation rather than they own individuality and workers will usually see other workers  as competitors for scarce employment rather than as collaborators in a socially useful production process. And even capitalists may themselves experience alienation as they sometimes recognise that the production processes which they own and control is , in several respects destructive of human happiness and welfare. Click here for further information on Marx, Capitalism and Alienation
  5. Nevertheless according to Marx workers will gradually  recognise the sources of their own exploitation and collaborate in the abolition of capitalism which will result also in the abolition of alienation. Of course there is little evidence that worker alienation ended in the factories of the former USSR but Marx if alive, would have denied that the USSR was a communist society.
  6. It has been argued that  under conditions of advanced capitalism there are greater opportunities for worker satisfaction especially for skilled manual workers in high technology industries which require workers to use considerable individual autonomy and judgement  although others have argued that these trends have been overstated. Students wishing to pursue these arguments could begin by consulting the theories of Robert Blauner and Harry Braverman. 
  7. The concept of alienation might also be applied to other aspects of society: students might feel alienated at school; individuals might feel alienated from a political process which denies them real political influence; from remote private and public sector bureaucracies and from the sometimes less than stimulating products of the "entertainment" industries. There is a lot to think about here! 

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

 

 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.

  1.  The Bourgeoisie were the economically dominant class but were also a politically dominant Ruling Class  which controlled the institutions of the state because all of the political leaders were drawn from the Bourgeoisie and could be relied upon to represent the interests of their own class.
  2.  Meanwhile, as already mentioned, the Proletariat were unrepresented politically.
  3.  The legal system protected private property and heavy penalties were imposed for minor thefts, with no account taken of mitigating circumstances. The legal system also discriminated against trade unions.
  4.  The Ruling Class attempted to maintain its power by spreading a so-called Ruling Class Ideology via the Family, the Church, the Schools and the Media, designed to encourage the working class to accept their own exploitation and the dominance of the Ruling Class without question.
  5.  Therefore, education was mainly for the rich and any education given to the poor was designed to keep them firmly in their place. According to Marx, religion played a similar role. The net effect was that the proletariat were beset by false class consciousness which meant that they were unaware of the real sources of their exploitation.
  6. If it should prove necessary the Bourgeoisie would be able to rely upon the police and the armed forces to sustain its power and it has occasionally done so although under normal circumstances ideological manipulation has proved sufficient to maintain its dominance.
  7. It is very important to note that 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 tan economically dominant class and a politically dominant ruling class.

 

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 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.

  1. Although capitalism would improve living standards for some, it would also lead to increasing unemployment, poverty and misery for many. This was Marx's theory of the immiseration or pauperisation of the Proletariat.
  2. Industrialisation would lead to urbanisation and this would make it easier to organise trade unions and political parties to represent the interests of the working class.
  3. There would be a polarisation of classes as members of the intermediate classes either fell into the proletariat or rose into the bourgeoisie although later in life Marx  argued that it was possible that the size of the intermediate classes would increase.
  4. Gradually  the Proletariat would eventually become aware of the reasons for its exploitation. It would develop a consciousness of its class position. That is, in Marx's own terms, it would change from a class in itself to a class for itself. It would protest, demonstrate and finally rise up in revolution  and overthrow the Bourgeoisie. Capitalism would eventually be replaced by Communism which was to be a classless utopia.
  5. Marx tended to argue that the transition to socialism was most likely to occur in societies where the capitalist system was most fully developed as in Western Europe and he also argued that if and when these relatively advanced capitalist countries adopted universal suffrage socialism could possibly be introduced by parliamentary rather revolutionary means. There have subsequently been ongoing debates among Marxists around the possibility or otherwise of achieving Socialism via parliamentary methods
  6. Also in later life Marx recognised the possibility of a transition to socialism in Russia despite the fact that capitalism was relatively underdeveloped there. Marx's theories were adapted significantly by Lenin who argued  that in Russia a small tightly organised political party  would be able to accelerate the revolutionary process despite the relative under-development of Russian capitalism. 
  7.  Revolutions inspired to a considerable extent by Marxism occurred also in China , Vietnam and elsewhere in the "Third World" although in each case capitalism was relatively underdeveloped in these societies. 
  8. Unfortunately the so-called Socialist or Communist regimes introduced in the former USSR , China and elsewhere were to a great extent founded upon repressive dictatorship and did not conform remotely to the kind of classless, liberating communism that Marx had in mind.

The Marxist theory has been heavily criticised but has also been defended resolutely by contemporary Marxists. Here are some of the main criticisms.

  1. It has been argued that Marx's theory of social classes is inadequate in that he is said to have concentrated too much on the Proletariat and the Bourgeoisie and failed to predict the growth of the middle class  although, as already mentioned he did predict this in his later theories..
  2. Critics also argued that Marx underestimated the importance of non-class differences in societies. Gender and ethnic differences may be given inadequate coverage in Marxist theory.
  3. It is also claimed that Marx underestimated the importance of divisions  within the main social classes----for example the importance of the divisions between skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled working class people that might reduce their class solidarity and, there fore, reduce the likelihood of revolution.
  4. The German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920)  several important criticisms of Marx' class theories .

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.

  1. Modern Marxists would, of course, dispute this and continue to defend the Marxist theory on the following grounds:
  2. Capitalist countries are still based on private enterprise and this means that the owners and controllers of private industry have great power over the working class.
  3. An economically dominant Bourgeoisie continues to exist and it still exercise great influence over the institutions of the State . Thus Marxist ideas may be used to suggest that current liberal democracies are in reality far less democratic than they appear to be and that business pressure groups are actually far more powerful than all other pressure groups which contradicts classical  Pluralist theories that political power is relatively evenly distributed.
  4. Capitalist economies are grossly unequal as is indicated by statistics on the distribution of income and wealth and despite the existence of the Welfare State, great poverty, even if measured in a relative sense, continues to exist.
  5. The overall significance of religion may have declined but schools and the capitalist-controlled media continue to brainwash the working class and prevent them from realising their true destiny, at least as Marxists would see it.  Thus Marxist theory offers an important critical perspective on the nature of the socialisation process under capitalism but it must also be evaluated relative to other perspectives on the socialisation process.
  6. Max Weber's analysis of the details of class structure are interesting but these details are of less importance than the fundamental distinction between the Proletariat and the Bourgeoisie emphasised by Marxists.
  7. Marxists [and others] are critical also of Functionalist and Postmodernist theories of social stratification
  8. Just because previous revolutions have been unsuccessful in the past, this does not prove that they will be unsuccessful in the future.
  9. Alternatively it might be argued that  Marxist theories , suitably modified, provide the best analysis of 21st century capitalism which must be changed fundamentally if the human race is to survive even if such changes are not necessarily to be achieved via original revolutionary Marxist processes.
  10. Some would argue the financial crisis of 2008 and the subsequent long economic recession have signalled that Marx's arguments about the ultimate instability of capitalism are now being proven correct. However very difficult economic issues are involved here and others argue that this is a crisis from which capitalism will recover just as it has done in the past.
  1. Marx presents an analysis of long term historical change involving transitions between successive Modes of Production.
  2. I have concentrated in this introductory summary on Marx' analysis of the nature of C19th Century capitalism and his predictions of the revolutionary transition to socialism.
  3. C19th Century capitalist societies are presented as class societies in which the two major social classes are the property owning Bourgeoisie and the property-less Proletariat. In Marxist terms class membership is determined by ownership or non -ownership of property [or in Marx' terms the means of production].
  4. Capitalism is seen as a dynamic economic system which nevertheless contains the seeds of its own destruction
  5. The social relations of production between the Bourgeoisie and the Proletariat involve exploitation and conflict since the Bourgeoisie's opportunities to generate profits depend upon its capacities to exploit the Proletariat.
  6. The Bourgeoisie is seen as an economically and politically dominant class because it controls the private sector of the economy and exercises considerable indirect control over the State. The Bourgeoisie retains its power primarily by ideological manipulation but does sometimes resort to force involving the reliance on the support of the police and/or the armed forces.
  7. Marx  makes an important distinction between the Economic Base [or Infrastructure] of capitalist societies and the Superstructure of capitalist societies which Marx believed to be heavily influenced by the nature of the Economic Base which, according to his critics lays him open to the charge of excessive economic determinism.
  8. Marx' class theories have attracted criticism from Weberian, Functionalist and Postmodernist perspectives and it has been argued also that he and his fellow Marxist have overstated the importance of class inequalities to the relative neglect of inequalities based around age, disability, ethnicity, gender and sexuality.
  9. Marx' predictions of socialist revolutions in advanced Western capitalist economies have not materialised because, according to his critics, capitalist societies have changed in ways not predicted by Marx and, depending upon one's taste, the ideologies of Conservatism or Liberalism or non-Marxist Socialism provide much more accurate depictions of the capitalist system than does Marxism.
  10. Where Marxist -inspired revolutions have occurred they have degenerated into centralised party dictatorships and certainly have not led to the emancipation of the working class as Marx had hoped and expected.
  11. Neither is it likely that the Western European working classes  will become  revolutionary classes in the foreseeable future
  12. Nevertheless despite all of these criticisms modern Marxists continue to argue that Marxist theories, suitably modified to take account of modern conditions,  still provide us with the most accurate insights into the nature of contemporary  capitalism which in their view remains a grossly unequal, unjust, exploitative system which restricts our capacities for self-development. As the recently deceased former Communist  Jimmy Reid once said "the rat race is for rats" and, as human beings, we must reject it in favour of something better. [R.I.P.  Mr. Reid]

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.