- Marxism is a social, political, and economic philosophy named after Karl Marx (1818-1883). Marxism has had a great historical influence on the organization of countries, as well as numerous theories in sociology.
- In sociology, Marxism has manifested as a method for socioeconomic analysis. Using the methods of Marxism, sociologists can outline the dominant power structures of society and examine their effects on how people within society see power structures.
- Marx defined the value of a good in terms of the amount of labor needed to produce it. This is called the Labor Theory of Value.
- Marxism draws a differentiation between two groups of people in society: the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. According to Marx, the bourgeoisie exploited the labor of the proletariat for profit.
- The bourgeoisie is also differentiated from the proletariat for owning the means of production — everything needed to produce goods in a society. This inability to control their own work results in alienation among the proletariat and a loss of creative autonomy.
In This Article
What is Marxism?
Nearly 150 years after his death, Karl Marx and his collaborator, Frederick Engels, remain some of the most controversial yet influential figures in the western world.
Both criticized capitalism, claiming that with its downfall would come an inevitable and harmonious socialist future mediated by a global revolution led by the global majority (Prychitko, 2002).
Marxism itself can be considered to be both a political philosophy and a sociological method.
What differentiates Marxist philosophy from the method is the extent to which it attempts to use scientific, systematic, and objective methods over attempts to formatively and prescriptively evaluate the world.
Marxism and the Economy
Marxism believes that economic systems in societies go through five stages, these are:
Marx and Engels conceptualized society prior to antiquity as free of social class division as hunter-gathers gathered just enough to survive. Because everyone in this system worked for subsistence, there was no surplus production, thus making exploitation impossible.
Antiquity, to Marx, represented the first stage of exploitation between two classes, as the dynamic between aristocrats and their slaves and servants characterized society.
The second stage of exploitation in Marx’s vision of society was medieval society. Divided into landowners and occupiers, the lords and landlords exploited those who cultivated their lands by taking a portion of their yield.
Marxism focuses most heavily on the ills of contemporary capitalist society. In this system, anyone could trade with anyone and were free to make money from their own goods and services.
However, according to Marx and Engels, this just as powerfully bred injustice through the exploitation of the poor by the rich. Marx and Engels were particularly inspired by the conditions of their era, the industrial revolution.
Karl Marx was born in what is now Western Germany, and he experienced England at the turn of the industrial revolution.
Witnessing first-hand the exploitation of British factory workers, the pair conducted a series of profiles of laborers and collaboratively authored The Communist Manifesto (Prychitko, 1991).
Although the ideas of Marxism seemed to take hold by the first half of the twentieth century, as the Bolshevik revolution in Russia and the spread of communism came to define much of eastern Europe, their association — the USSR — began to reject Marxist ideology, entering a transition toward private property rights and a market exchange system.
The societies of Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Romania, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Albania, and the other Soviet states shifted to a capitalist and consumerist system, and the USSR collapsed in 1991 (Prychitko, 2002).
After the fall of the current capitalist system, Marx predicted a utopian society involving shared resources, wealth, and equality.
Key Terms and Principles
Marx believed that capitalists could achieve profit because they had more power and resources than the workers.
Thus, the system of capitalism is, in Marx’s view, one that exploits the worker class — what he calls the proletariat. The ruling capitalist class, meanwhile, harvested more value than they expended. Marx called this class of people the bourgeoisie.
The term proletariat, comprising the majority of society, derives from the Latin term proletarius, which refers to people who did not own property and who made up a class defined by this characteristic (Darity, 2008).
Engels developed his image of the proletariat as a class in industrial society in Manchester in the 1830s, while Marx did so on the streets of Paris during the same time period (Darity, 2008).
The struggles of this class became central to the Communist Manifesto, where Marx and Engels looked from antiquity onward to argue that the struggle between the proletariat and bourgeoisie classes — and its culmination in capitalism — is the central driving force and history (Darity, 2008).
The economic basis and superstructure supporting bourgeoisie exploitation
What differentiated the bourgeoisie’s ability to exploit the proletariat from the proletariat’s inability to create their own goods and services and reap their own value was, according to Marx, ownership of the means of production.
The means of production is everything that goes into the production of the necessities of life.
These include both “productive forces” — the labor, tools, and raw materials required to make things — and the “relations of production” — the social structures that regulate the relationships between humans in the production of goods (Mandel & Mandel, 1979).
In practice, the gap in ownership of the means of production would work out like this. Say that there existed a local proletariat bookbinder in a small town.
According to Marx, that bookbinder would price his goods according to the amount of labor required to produce them.
Meanwhile, a large book-binding factory, using hundreds of workers to bind books and automated book-binding equipment, would be able to afford to sell these books for much less.
This would be true both because it takes less time to produce these books and because the capitalists running the factory are able to exploit the labor of their workers, driving down the price further.
Because the proletariat, small-town bookbinder does not own the massive resources required to bind thousands of cheaply-made books every day, he cannot compete with the capitalist.
Thus, in the view of Marxism, he would likely be unable to survive as a bookbinder and resort to selling his labor to make his way.
The Labor Theory: The Basis of Economic Value
The biggest economic principle underlying the rest of Marxism is Marx’s definition of value. This is the subject of his book, Das Kapital (Capital; 2018).
The basic claim of this theory is simple: the value of a commodity can be objectively measured in terms of the average number of hours of labor needed to produce it.
This means that if a pair of pants takes half as long to produce than a pair of shoes, then the shoes are twice as valuable as the pants.
The result is that the competitive price of shoes will be twice that of pants, regardless of the value of the labor and physical materials that went into them (Prychitkoo, 1991).
Although economists today consider this theory of values to be false, this theory of value was popular in the mid-nineteenth century, and promoted by economists such as Adam Smith (1937).
Unlike these economists, however, Marx turned this theory against capitalism. Marx argued that this theory could explain the value of all commodities, including the labor that workers sell to capitalists in exchange for wages.
Marx believed that capitalists inevitably paid their workers less than the value of the goods that they produced.
That is to say, if a worker needs one pound to feed, clothe, and house himself, and he produces 5 pounds worth of goods per day, the capitalist would make four pounds in profit.
False consciousness and Alienation
Beyond merely criticizing profit-seeking through the labor theory of value, Marx intended to craft a grand theory of human history and social change.
Marx believed that people are, by nature, totally free, creative beings — and yet, the modern, industrialized world seemed to be beyond anyone’s full control.
He believed that this loss of freedom and creative autonomy derives from the laws of supply and demand that rule the capitalist economy (Prychitko, 2002).
Although workers produce things for the market, it is market forces, not the workers, who control these things. As people are required to work for capitalists who yield control over the means of production, they are relegated to doing degrading, monotonous, and mechanizable tasks, which separate them from the free and creative people they naturally are.
This monotonous and mechanized labor turns the workers themselves into objects that make decisions based on considerations of profit and cost, with little concern for human nature. An inhuman society results (Prychitko, 2002).
False consciousness is yet another concept derived from Marx’s conception of social class. In short, false consciousness is a way of thinking that prevents a person from perceiving the true nation of their social or economic situation.
This especially applies to the members of the working “proletariat” class. Marx believed that the members of this subordinate class had mental representations of the social relations around them that concealed or obscured their exploitation and domination (Meyerson, 1991).
For example, a worker may believe their financial hardship — and that of others — is due to their innate abilities and lack of hard work.
This view serves the capitalist that this worker works under, as it encourages the worker to contribute more labor or a greater quality of labor, enabling the capitalist to generate more profit.
Yet another example of the distortion of false consciousness is described by Bowles and Gintis’ famous “myth of meritocracy.”
The myth of meritocracy, at least in the education system, leads students to believe that everyone has a fair chance at success in school and that their success or failure in that environment is determined by the quality of their efforts.
This overriding belief conceals the fact that one’s education and achievement in school are demonstrably and largely affected by a large array of social factors, such as one’s social class and economic situation (Bowes & Gintis, 1976).
Marxism has attracted a large amount of debate from all sides. Many economists believe that his predictions have not withstood time.
These economists claim that, although capitalist markets have changed over the past 150 years, competition has not devolved into a monopoly, and there has been no worldwide socialist revolution in the most advanced capitalist countries.
On the contrary, socialism largely took hold in poor countries, often leading to systemic poverty and political dictatorship. This runs contrary to Marx’s notion that a socialist society would flourish (Prychitko, 2002).
Marxism has also been criticized for its simplistic class structure and the idea that capitalism has become less exploitative — through the invention of the “Welfare state,” which provides support for the poorest in society.
A number of sociologists have also criticized individual concepts in marxism. Postmodernists, for example, posit that people are free to think and thus cannot be held under false consciousness and derided the theory for being a “metanarrative” — an overarching and oversimplified, theory of history.
Others claim that work is less alienating for the self-employed, a phenomenon that has proliferated with the rise of remote work (Thompson, 2016).
Applications of Marxism to Sociology
Despite evidence that Marx’s theories of revolution are far from reality, Marxism — be it of the variety created by Marx and Engels or the long lineage after them — has wielded a large amount of influence over sociology since the inception of the Communist Manifesto.
Amazon is one example of Marx’s idea of alienation coming to bear in the modern world. Amazon’s warehouse workers have been, according to many reports, subject to conditions where they carry out repetitive and monotonous tasks.
As workers are constantly timed based on the number of packages they pack and constantly monitored, they are sometimes left unable to fill basic human needs, such as using the toilet (Briken & Taylor, 2018; Thompson, 2016).
More theoretically, the umbrella term Marxist sociology refers to the general application of the Marxist perspective within sociology.
As a Conflict Theory
One modern sociological perspective derived from the grand Marxist narrative of history is Conflict Theory.
Conflict theory posits that society is in a state of perpetual conflict because of competition for limited resources.
This social order is maintained by domination and power rather than by the consensus and conformity of those within it.
The primary conflict in Marxism occurs between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie (Savur, 1975).
Marxism would come to facilitate the development of critical theories and cultural studies.
Critical theory is a philosophical approach to culture — especially literature — that seeks to confront the social, historical, and ideological forces and structures of power that produce and constrain culture.
The first and most notable critical theorists are the members of the Frankfurt School (Bohman, 2005).
The critical method of analysis has far-reaching academic influence. Often, critical theorists are preoccupied with critiquing modernity and capitalist society, the definition of what it means to be free in society, and the detection of wrongs in society.
Critical theorists often use a specific interpretation of Marxist philosophy focusing on economic and political ideas such as commodification, reification, fetishization, and the critique of mass culture.
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