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Key ideas

Marxism is a perspective based on the ideas ok Karl Marx. Like Durkheim, Marx saw both the harm caused by modern industrial society and the promise of progress that it held. Like Durkheim, Marx believed that it was possible to understand society scientifically (he described his theory as 'scientific socialism') and that this knowledge would point the way to a better world. In these ways, Marxism is a contribution of the Enlightenment project.


Marx was a 'revolutionist'...

Marx was not just a theorist, he was a revolutionary socialist and his ideas came to form the basis of communism. Marxism subsequently became the official doctrine of the former Soviet Union.


Historical Materialism

Materialism is the view that humans are beings with material needs, such as food and shelter, and must work to meet them using the forces of production. At first, these forces are unaided human labour, but over time people develop tools, machines etc.


Forces+ social relations= mode of production

Humans also cooperate with one another, entering into social relations of production- ways of organising production. As the forces of production develop, the social relations of production also change. A division of labour develops that eventually becomes a division between two classes- a class that owns the means of production and a class of labourers. Production is then directed by the class of owners to meet their own needs. The forces and relations of production together are the mode of production


Class society and exploitation

In the earliest stage of human history- primitive communism- everything is shared and there are no class divisions. But as the forces of production grow, different types of class society develop. In class societies, one class owns the means of production, enabling them to exploit the labour of others for their own benefit. In particular they can control society's surplus- the difference between what the labourers actually produce and what they need to subsist.


What three class societies foes Marx identify?

1. Ancient society- based on the exploitation of slaves legally tied to their owners
2. Feudal society- based on the exploitation of serfs legally tied to the land
3. Capitalist society- based on the exploitation of free wage labourers



Capitalism is based on the division between a class of owners, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. But unlike earlier class societies, capitalism has three distinctive features.


1. The proletariat are legally free and separated from the means of production...

Thus because they do not own any means of production, they have to sell their labour power to the bourgeoisie in return for wages.


2. The means of production becomes concentrated in ever fewer hands...

Through competition, ownership of the means of production becomes concentrated in ever fewer hands. ; e.g. today's giant transnational corporations. This drives small independent producers into the ranks of the proletariat. they become proletartianised. Competition also forces capitalists to pay the lowest wages possible , causing the immiseration of the proletariat.


3. Production becomes concentrated in ever larger units...

Capitalism continually expands the forces of production in its pursuit of profit, production becomes concentrated in ever larger units and technological advances deskill the workforce.


Class consciousness

Capitalism sows the seeds of its own destruction. Polarising the classes, bringing the proletariat together in ever larger numbers and driving down their wages means capitalism creates the conditions under which the working class can develop a consciousness. The proletariat then moves from being merely a class in itself to becoming a class for itself , whose members are class conscious- aware of the need to overthrow capitalism



The class that owns the means of material production also owns and controls the means of mental production- the production of ideas. The dominant ideas in society are therefore the ideas of the economically dominant class- spread by institutions such as religion, education and the media. However, as capitalism impoverishes the workers, they begin to see through capitalist ideology and develop class consciousness.



Alienation is the result of our loss of control over our labour and its products and therefore our separation from our true creative nature. Under Capitalism, alienation reaches its peak because workers are completely separated from and have no control over the forces of production, and because the division of labour is at its most intense.


The state, revolution and communism

The state exists to protect the interests of the class of owners who control it-the ruling class. The state is made up of 'armed bodies of men'- the police, courts, prisons etc. Previous revolutions had always been one minority class overthrowing another, but the proletarian revolution that overthrows capitalism will be the first revolution by the majority against the minority. It will abolish the state, create a classless communist society, abolish exploitation, replace private ownership with social ownership and end alienation.


Criticisms of Marx
1. Class

Marx sees class as the only important division. Weber argues that status and differences can also be important sources of inequality; e.g. a 'power elite' can rule without actually owning the means of production, as in the former Soviet Union. Marx's two class model is simplistic. Weber sub-divides the proletariat into skilled and unskilled classes, and includes a white-collar middle class of office workers.


2. Economic determinism

Marx's base-superstructure model is criticised for economic determinism. It fails to recognise that humans have free will and can bring about change through their conscious actions. Predictions of revolution in the most advanced capitalist countries, such as Western Europe, have not come true. It is only economically backward countries such as Russia in 1917 that have seen Marxist led revolutions.


The 'two Marxisms'

The absence or failure of revolution in the west has led many Marxists to reject the economic determinism of the base superstructure model. They have sought to explain why Capitalism has persisted and how it might be overthrown. Two models have emerged:
Humanistic or Critical Marxism: e.g. Gramsci, has some similarities with action theories and interpretive sociology
Scientific or structuralist Marxism: e.g. Althusser, is a structural approach with some similarities' to positivist sociology.


Gramsci and Hegemony
How does the ruling class maintain its position?

Gramsci's concept of hegemony, or ideological and moral leadership, explains how the ruling class maintains its position:
1. Coercion: the army, police, prisons and courts of the Capitalist state force other classes to accept its rule
2. Consent (hegemony): the ruling class use ideas and values to persuade the subordinate classes that their rule is legitimate


However, according to Gramsci, the ruling class hegemony is never complete because...

- The ruling class are a minority and have to make ideological compromises with other classes
- The proletariat have a dual conscious- the poverty and exploitation they experience means they begin to see through the dominant ideology
- Gramsci rejects economic determinism as an explanation of change: even though economic factors such as mass unemployment may create the preconditions for a revolution, ideas are central to whether or not it will actually occur


Althusser's structuralist Marxism

For structural Marxists such as Althusser, it is not people's actions but social structures that shape history. The task of the sociologist is to reveal how these structures work. Althusser's version of Marxism rejects both economic determinism and humanism.


Althusser's criticism of the base-superstructure model

Marx stated that society's economic base determines its superstructure of institutions, ideologies, etc. and that contradictions in the base cause changes in the superstructure. Althusser's structural determinism is more complex. In his model, capitalist society has three structures or levels:
1, the economic level: consisting of all those activities that involve producing something in order to satisfy a need
2. The political level: consisting of all forms of organisation
3. The ideological level: involving the ways people see themselves and their world


Ideological and repressive state apparatuses

Although the economic level dominates in capitalism, the other two levels perform indispensable (absolutely necessary) functions. The state performs ideological and political functions that ensure the reproduction (continuation) of capitalism. He divides the state into two apparatuses:
1. The repressive state apparatuses- or armed bodies of men who coerce the working class into complying with the will of the bourgeoisie. This is how Marxists have traditionally seen the state
2. The ideological state apparatus- manipulate the working class into accepting capitalism as legitimate. This is a much wider definition of the state than the traditional Marxist view.


Althusser's criticism of humanism

For structural Marxists, free will, choice and creativity are an illusion- everything is the product of underlying social structures.
Humans are merely puppets and these unseen structures are the hidden puppet master, determining all our thoughts and actions. For Althusser, socialism will not come about because of a change in consciousness- as humanistic Marxists argue- but because of a crisis of capitalism resulting from what he calls over-determination: the contradictions in the three structures that occur relatively independently of each other