Sociological Perspectives Marxism

Perhaps the smallest extent of the influence of Karl Marx had been the formation of the Marxist sociological perspective, the impact that Marx has had within the world of politics is so massive that it has changed the course the history, and placed Marx amongst the greatest thinkers that humanity has ever produced. Marx was preoccupied with charting and predicting the social history of mankind, more specifically, identifying the circumstances that would herald the downfall of the capitalist system. In order to better understand the consequences of his work, and the modern or Neo-Marxist perspective, which is not unwittingly servile to his theory, it is important to be acquainted with the key ideas that Marx produced.

The basic assumption from which Marx started is that all human activity stems from the need to ensure survival; therefore without the acquisition of food and shelter no other activity is possible. Marx believed that the structure of society mirrors this relationship, the means by which any society produces goods, or as Marx put it the ‘base’ shapes the institutions and relationships or ‘superstructure’ of that society. In feudal society, farming is the chief means of production, the economic base. The lords own that land and allow the serfs to farm it in return for a portion of what they produce. The economy of feudal society places lords dominant and the serfs subservient, the rest of society, the superstructure reflects this position, the legal system obliges the serfs into the military service of the lords and the church justifies their exploitation.

Marx termed such a relationship between the base and superstructure, a mode of production, or epoch. Marx categorized four main epochs, and predicted a fifth, they are; primitive communism, ancient society, feudalism, capitalism and communism. Aside from primitive communism, because there is no surplus from production, and his picture of a perfect society, communism, each epoch is characterized by exploitation; masters exploit slaves, lords exploit serfs and in capitalism the bourgeoisie exploit the proletariat. In each case, for Marx, this exploitation leads to class conflict and the eventual replacement of that mode of production for the next, Marx believed that after the downfall of capitalism the next epoch was to be his utopian communism.

They key facet to Marx’s theory is that class conflict leads to revolutionary change. Class conflict occurs when contradictions become apparent within any specific mode of production, as humans discover ever efficient means of creating material wealth. For instance, within feudalism the development of sources of power such as steam provided the potential for increasingly sophisticated and efficient ways of generating wealth, however this potential could not be fully realized whilst the work force was tied to the land. This contradiction led to the migration of the workforce, the factory owners assumed the dominant position in society, and society is thus transformed. While this version of history is at best over-simplified, Marx was more concerned with the capitalist epoch.

Capitalism is defined by the production of goods and services in order to attain profits, for Marx it is characterized by two classes; the bourgeoisie who own the means of production, and the proletariat who sell their labor in return for wages. By comparison with the feudal system, capitalism seems fair, however upon closer inspection the proletariat sell their services for less than the true market value, i.e. the bourgeoisie’s profits, they are being exploited. Marx stated, “The work is external to the worker… the alienated character of work for the worker appears in the fact that is not his work but work for someone else, that in work he does not belong to himself but to another person”. For Marx the proletariat are little more than slaves, whose feelings of alienation form part of the eventual collapse of capitalism.

In the pursuit of profit the bourgeoisie would develop ever sophisticated, technology so advanced that it could be possible to provide the whole of society with a high standard of living. However this would not happen, in fact the opposite what Marx called ‘class polarization’ would occur. With more sophisticated technology and competition the bourgeoisie would have to resort to new ways of increasing their profits, wages would be reduced, the rich richer, and the poor poorer. The contradiction is set, the ability to provide everyone with a high standard of living at odds with the polarized class system, however the revolution would not happen, until, in Marx’s terms, the proletariat makes the transition from a class in itself to a class for itself.

Marx’s process of the proletariat becoming a class for itself alludes to his belief that the transition from capitalism to communism would most likely be realized through violent revolution. Since the economic base of society is reflected in the superstructure, economic dominance means political dominance, the bourgeoisie not only control the wealth, but the state. With political dominance the bourgeoisie can not only disseminate values and beliefs that exalt the virtues of capitalism, but can actively resist any opposition, e.g. legislate against trade unions or use the army to quash any civil disobedience. Eventually, though, the proletariat would see through the capitalist ideology and become revolutionary. This revolution would be different from all others, a revolution not of a minority for a minority, but of the majority for the majority. The perfect communist system would be achieved.

The general and grand-theory of Marx has come under justifiable criticism. The opening line of his ‘Communist Manifesto’ is, “the history of hitherto society is the history of class struggle”, the idea that history is governed by any principle, even class struggle, is at the very least questionable. Perhaps this belief that history can be characterized by a defining set of principles lends Marx to believe that society can be categorized within the framework of a single theory, however attempting to explain the sum of social interaction and structure from a single viewpoint has fallen out of fashion. Grand-theory such as classical Marxism views individuals as the products of society, and this determinism versus free will still remains a contentious issue, especially amongst Neo-Marxists.

A different, yet widely held criticism of Marx, the ineptly run distinctly non-utopian, and collapse of communist states, is actually an impotent point. The very introduction of communist states such as Russia, China and Cuba provides something of an enigma. Would these states have occurred without the work of Marx? Undoubtedly not, Marx predicted the advent of communism as a post capitalist epoch, however the aforementioned states, prior to communism where mainly rural economies, in the transition from feudal to capitalist societies, they missed a major step in Marx’s classical theory, because of the introduction of Marx’s classical theory. Without the need to highlight the failures of ‘communist’ states, a more incisive criticism of Marx is simply that he was wrong.

In key areas Marx’s predictions have not been fulfilled, for instance where Marx thought that class polarization would occur, in contemporary capitalist societies it is the middle class that has grown. This error is indicative of the major floor in Marx’s work, while Marx viewed the economy as determining social structure, he did not realize, and perhaps could not, just how complex economies would become. For example, instead of the bourgeoisie having complete control over the means of production, the development of stocks and shares means that it is not solely the bourgeoisie who have access to the profits that a company makes, or indeed, through shareholders votes how the company is run.

Despite these criticisms the Marxist perspective came to prominence during, that now legendary decade of social change, the 1960s where its picture of society based on conflict rather than consensus struck a cultural chord. The problem for Neo-Marxists was to account for the reasons why capitalism has remained resistant to the revolution, and of course refines, and build upon the ideas of Marx that would bring about its collapse. As alluded to earlier there are differing opinions amongst Neo-Marxists, where they agree is the rejection of complete economic determinism, (the idea that the structure of society is completely dependant on the economic base), however where they disagree is upon the extent to which the structure of society determines its members behavior.

Humanist Marxism, as the name suggests, begins with the assumption that humans can transform their environment, following from this assumption Humanist Marxists adopt the view that the bourgeoisie actively maintain their dominant position, and therefore the proletariat must actively seek to end it. A key contribution to this school of thought comes from Gramsci and his theory of hegemony (1971). Gramsci asserted that in order to maintain dominance, or be hegemonic, the bourgeoisie must actively disseminate ideas and beliefs that justify their position through the civil institutions of society such as the church or the press. For Gramsci the bourgeoisie is not a united group, the extent to which hegemony is achieved varies as the different groups within the bourgeoisie compete for power.

Gramsci further believed that because bourgeoisie hegemony is never fully achieved, the proletariat possesses a dual consciousness, one that reflects the ideals of the bourgeoisie and one that reflects their real experience. This dual consciousness, for Gramsci, means that the proletariat will always partially see through the bourgeoisie ideology. Where Marx believed that the revolution was the obvious conclusion of contradictions stemming from the economic base of society, Gramsci believes that it can only come about through a battle of hegemony, ideas, Marxists must become evangelical and (oh dear I cannot find a better phrase) win the hearts and minds of the proletariat. The example of rebellious youth culture and profiteering from the fashions etc. thereof has been used to demonstrate the dual consciousness.

The critical theory of the Frankfurt school, with its chief protagonists Adorno, Horheimer and Marcuse, like Gramsci, attempt to demonstrate how the bourgeoisie ideology increasingly integrates the proletariat into the capitalist system. They place great emphasis on how mass culture is used to corrupt rational thought and fool the proletariat into perpetuating the capitalist system. Adorno and Horheimer coined the phrase ‘culture industry’ to refer to products and processes of mass culture, this industry they claim, produces and satisfies false needs, for example that ridiculously large, sleek and crystal clear TV that I want, but ultimately do not need. Such analysis leads the Frankfurt school to a rather unsavory conclusion; hegemony in capitalist society is almost complete.

In order to demonstrate just how bleak the outlook is from the perspective of Frankfurt school we may use the example of the rock band ‘Rage Against the Machine’. This band can be described as exalting the true virtues of Marxist theory, however in order to best spread their ideology they signed to a subsidiary of the Sony music label. This can either be seen from the position of Gramsci that the band is fighting in the front lines in the battle of hegemony. Although from the position of the Frankfurt school, the band, instead of raging against the machine has merely become part of it, the culture industry is so advanced that it can even profit from communist beliefs. At the time of writing Marcuse did concede that a few marginal groups, such as ethnic minorities, had not been fully integrated into the system; however recent phrases such as the ‘black’ and ‘pink pound’ (or dollar) further demonstrate how adept the capitalist system is.

While broadly speaking the humanist Marxists believe that it is up to individuals to bring about the collapse of the capitalist system, structural Marxists reject this position. Faced with the success of the flexible economic engine that drives capitalism, structural Marxists have had to develop Marx’s ideas on how the economic base of society affects its superstructure. According to Althusser society, or a ‘social formation’ is comprised of three levels; the economic, political and ideological. Althusser concedes that the economic base is the most influential of the three; however the political and ideological levels are not simply reflections of the economy but have ‘relative autonomy’ and can affect the economic base.

To express this point of view we may take the example of a restaurant, its accountant and its patrons as a microcosm of society. It would not be logical to assert that because the restaurant exists so does its accountant and customers. It would, however, be fair to say that the amount of work received by the accountant and the type of food received by the customers is affected by the restaurant. Therefore the economy does limit the political and ideological levels, but they are not dependent on the former. Furthermore, returning to our microcosm, the accountant could find ways of making the restaurant more efficient, and the suggestions of the customers could influence the type of food served in the restaurant. The three levels of the social formation are interrelated, can affect each other but are not, as Marx claimed, completely defined by the economic base.

Althusser continued his rejection of Marx’s economic determinism when he argued that in each of Marx’s epochs a different level of the social formation; economic, political and ideological was dominant. Under feudalism, because the landlords have to ensure the serfs hand over a portion of their produce, they are reliant on the state to ensure this happens, in the feudal epoch, therefore, the political level is dominant. In a capitalist society the bourgeoisie automatically receive the surplus produced by the proletariat. In this mode of production, the economic level is dominant, although whilst dominant the running of a social system is shaped by the interconnected nature of the three social levels. For example, individuals need to be trained to produce goods, and persuaded to accept that role.

Althusser claimed that it is state that ensures that these conditions are met. The state can use the ‘repressive state apparatus’ such as the army and the police to counteract any civil disobedience, and the ‘ideological state apparatus’ such as the education system and the mass media to socialize people into their allotted place in life. In this way, free will is an illusion, we are the products of the structures of society, and therefore the revolution is not dependent on an individual level in the battle for hegemony or that idea of Marx from which hegemony derives, the proletariat becoming a class for itself. Instead the revolution stems from Marx’s idea of contradiction. Capitalism is only vulnerable to the revolution when the economic, political and ideological levels are at odds with each other, a situation that as of yet has not happened to a truly capitalist society.

The most common criticism of the Neo-Marxist perspectives is that in their rejection of Marx’s economic determinism they are liable to reject Marxism. However I refute this position, Neo-Marxists had to account for the unexpected stability of capitalism, the rejection of Marx’s greatest mistake does automatically lead to an opposing position, in fact I believe that the Neo-Marxists have remained remarkably faithful to the overall context and feeling of Marx’s original work. However, that does not mean that I agree with the general position of Marx or his successors, while a perspective that highlights conflict as a major force in society has been a welcome antidote to the extreme consensus expressed by functionalists all Marxist theories overplay the extent to which conflict is an aspect of everyday life, and of course the miserable lives of the proletariat.

The true flaw in all Marxist works is the mistaken belief in capitalist societies, even with the inclusion of America; there is no completely capitalist society. All contemporary societies which we refer to as capitalist incorporate within them a socialist structure, the degree to which a government leans towards the capitalist or socialist can usually be measured by the rate of tax. While Marxism has been useful in providing a new perspective from which to judge our own societies it is difficult to argue that free trade and enterprise does not afford opportunity, and that is why most successful contemporary governments incorporate both systems, encouraging enterprise, but also providing a welfare state. In fact, the alleged communist state of China is now a major player in the global free market economy and even has its very own burgeoning middle class; it simply can’t be all bad.


Sociology in Focus: Paul Taylor et al. (Causeway Press) 1997
Sociology: Ivor Morgan (Letts Educational) 1998
A Level Sociology: Steven Moore (Letts Educational) 1998