About Karl Marx

Karl Marx (1818-1883), was a German philosopher, economist, revolutionary and social theorist perhaps best known for his influences on many communist societies in the twentieth century. Although his economic, social and political ideas were ignored by many scholars during his own lifetime, after his death in 1883, his works became widely recognized in the socialist movement. Marxism, which he founded, became increasingly influential to sociologists in the 1970s, due to both the decline of functionalism and the fact that it seemed to provide plausible answers to society which functionalism failed to provide.

From a contemporary perspective however, history seems to have failed to support Marx's views, especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Nonetheless, many argue that history also proves that Marx has successfully identified many problems within the capitalist system and that Marx's analysis of capitalism remains relevant and significant.


Marxist theory is an example of a conflict theory which has many interpretations or sub-perspectives. The following account is only one based on sources recognized by Cambridge for AS Sociology.

Infrastructure & Superstructure

This perspective is based on the assumption that production in all societies are social enterprises, because humans produce necessities (such as food and shelter) to survive and engage in social relationships with others. Society, furthermore, is shaped by economic factors known as the infrastructure, which is formed by the forces of production and corresponding social relationships. Other aspects of society or social institutions (such as politics and education) are known as the superstructure, which is largely affected by the infrastructure..

  • Infrastructure: economic basis of society
  • Superstructure: other social institutions, such as the political and educational institutions
  • Forces of production: land, raw materials, labor, machinery and knowledge needed for production

Dialectical Materialism

Dialectical movement involves a conflict of contradictions, where the conflict serves to be a source of change which takes place once the struggle between the two opposing forces reaches a point of intensity where a final collision takes place, resulting in the creation of a new set of forces in the next stage of development. Hegel, a German philosopher, developed this concept of dialectical change, and he viewed changes in history as a dialectical movement of human ideas and thoughts. Marx, however, believing that the infrastructure determines human thought, argued that the source of change primarily lies in contradictions in the infrastructure. Due to this priority he gives to economic factors, the Marxist view of history is often known as dialectical materialism.

4 Epochs of human development

Keeping this in mind, Marx characterized social development into various stages or epochs in terms of the ownership of means of production. Marx believed that the survival of these four periods were temporary due to the contradictions and conflicts in their infrastructures. Change takes place when "the existing forces of production and the existing social relations should be incapable of standing side by side" (Marx).

  • Means of production: forces of production that can be legally owned
  1. Primitive communism: early human society where contradictions did not exist and the means of production and products of labor were owned by everyone.
  2. Ancient society: when slavery was common and the aristocratic elites owned the means of production
  3. Feudal society: when land was considered the most important means of production and was owned by a small group of landowners who ruled the peasants
  4. Capitalism: a system with two social classes--the ruling class and working class. The ruling class privately owned property and exploited the working class for their own profits.

FINAL: Communism- the final stage of human development where the state owns everything and everyone is equal. Marx believed that as capitalism progressed, the magnitude of the contradictions and intensity of class conflict increased steadily, and that as capital accumulates, it would be concentrated into fewer hands. Furthermore, he predicted that there would be economic crises resulting from downward pressures on wages of workers with more capitalists cutting costs, leading to under-consumption. He thought such processes would eventually make the proletariat conscious of reality and lead them to "a revolt." Communism would therefore develop as a resolution to the conflicts in capitalism and have an infrastructure without contradiction or conflict, and therefore be the end of history.

Class conflict

Social class, to Marx, unlike Functionalism, is more than a descriptive category and used to explain how and why societies change. Marx sees society as divided into these various social groups or classes, while the relationship between these classes is of conflict and hostility. Class conflict exists due to the opposing interests of different social classes, such as that between the bourgeoisie and proletariat. It involves the domination of one group over the other and forms the basis of the dialectic of social change. Class inequality, furthermore, is another key concept resulting from class conflict, which involves the idea of one small, elite group owning most of the wealth while the majority of people own little to nothing in capitalist societies. Class inequality can be explained by stratification, otherwise known as the ranking of social classes in terms of their power, influence and wealth. For Marxism, power mostly came from economic ownership, and therefore those with the economic resources were equally influential in other aspects of society, as we'll see in "ideology and false consciousness."

Exploitation and Oppression

Based on the assumption that production produces wealth, in capitalist societies, production requires labor, and hence we have the relationship of that between an employer and employee. In capitalism, the capitalists are the employers who own the means of production. Instead of regarding them as successful entrepreneurs however, Marx saw them as thieves who appropriated the wealth produced by the employees. This contradiction can be linked to how wages paid to employees are often well below the actual wealth of the production. Profit, therefore, was merely a fancy word for exploitation. Because the proletariat or employees were being oppressed and exploited, Marx argued that they would rise up and revolt, leading to the downfall of the system.

Ideology and false consciousness

Capitalism, nonetheless, has survived in the West for some 200 years, so how does Marxism explain its survival? He claims that capitalists use their economic power to gain political and ideological power, i.e. they monopolize political power to implement laws that will protect their interests and positions. Ideology is used by the bourgeoisie to paint a false picture of society and to allow the proletariat to accept their situation as natural and right. Hence the proletariat have this false consciousness which helps maintain the system and disguise the reality employer-employee relationships are exploitative. Ideas of freedom and equality, in addition, are also used to create this illusion of capitalism.

Hegemony: force and ideology

Hegemony is "leadership with the consent of the led," and in capitalism, that is achieved by both the use of force and ideology. Force may involve threats of imprisonment, violence and even death, while ideology can persuade people to behave in an orderly manner through religious teachings or educating people that individuals have a pre-determined place in society.


Finally, Marxism suggests that the capitalist systems alienates both the bourgeoisie and proletariat from society. The proletariat are alienated as despites their collective efforts in producing goods for the benefit of society, the results of their labor have been selfishly claimed by the bourgeoisie. Furthermore, it is argued that as work becomes highly specialized in capitalist societies, people start to lose sight of how their work contributes to the society and therefore feel less significant. The bourgeoisie, however, are also alienated from fellow human beings as they exploit and oppress the rest of society. Crime exists because of the weakened social bonds between people.

Alienation can also be interpreted as a situation where the creations of humans appear to humans as alien objects. This means that people will remain alienated to the society they have created, during which they give an independent existence to ideas and institutions (which they can be controlled by), until they become conscious of themselves within their own creation. In this process thought, humans may become strangers of the world they have created, and thus be alienated. As Marx sees productive labor as crucial to human activity, the fundamental basis of alienation originates from production. Alienation occurs when people start labeling products of their labor as commodities to be sold in the markets, as by doing so people become the subject to impersonal forces, such as the law of supply and demand, which they have seem to have little or no control of.

Moreover, Marx argues that the more capitalist a society becomes, the more alienated the people become due to the conflicts between the ruling class and working class, which are highlighted by profits. As Marx refers to men in the working class, "the greater this product the less he is himself" because they are prisoners of market forces which they cannot control and therefore at the complete mercy of capitalists who take the fruits of their labor in the form of profits. Also, the market forces are man-made, thus making alienation a consequence of human activity or relationships. He asserts that alienation will only be resolved when people come to realize the reality that the situation they are in is man-made and can therefore be changed by their actions.

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