Eso13 Sociological thought: Block 2- carl marx block Introduction

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Sociological thought:
Block 2- CARL MARX

Block Introduction

Carl Marx was a German philosopher, economist, sociologist, historian, journalist, and revolutionary socialist. For his writings on materialism, he was also known as a great philosopher.

For being ‘deadly serious about the importance of the social’, we study him as one of the founders of sociology.

The fact that there are ‘millions of Marxists, makes it a little confusing to discuss Marx’s ideas in simple terms’.

The argument and theories of Emile Durkheim and Max Weber and many other sociologists mostly center around Marx’s ideas, though in a critical vein. Thus we can easily assume that he is the overpowering figure in sociology.

Biographical Sketch-Karl Heinrich Marx (1818-83)

Karl Marx, the eldest son of Heinrich and Henrietta Marx, was born on May 5, 1818 into a wealthy middle-class family in the city of Trier, Germany. Marx was a lawyer and to escape anti-Semitism decided to abandon his Jewish faith when Karl was a child. Although the majority of people living in Trier were Catholics, Marx decided to become a Protestant.

His mother, a fairly uneducated woman does not seem to have had a major influence on him. In contrast, relations with his father, despite some strain, remained close almost throughout the latter life.

Marx entered Bonn University to study law. At university he spent much of his time socialising and running up large debts. His Father (Heinrich Marx) agreed to pay off his son's debts but insisted that he moved to the more sedate Berlin University.

In Berlin

The move to Berlin resulted in a change in Marx.
Bruno Bauer (one of his lecturers), introduced Marx to the writings of G. W. F. Hegel (1770–1831), who had been the professor of philosophy at Berlin until his death in 1831.

He became involved with a group of radical thinkers known as the Young Hegelians, Marx was especially impressed by Hegel's theory that a thing or thought could not be separated from its opposite.

For example, the slave could not exist without the master, and vice versa. Hegel argued that unity would eventually be achieved by the equalising of all opposites, by means of the dialectic (logical progression) of thesis, antithesis and synthesis. This was Hegel's theory of the evolving process of history.

In Paris

Marx and his wife moved in October 1843. As far as Carl Marx was concerned, he had uppermost in his mind one question- what was the reason for the failure of the French Revolution?.

In Paris he began mixing with members of the working class for the first time. Marx was shocked by their poverty but impressed by their sense of comradeship. In an article that he wrote for the Franco-German Annals, Marx applied Hegel's dialectic theory to what he had observed in Paris. Marx, who now described himself as a communist, argued that the working class (the proletariat), would eventually be the emancipators of society. When published in February 1844, the journal was immediately banned in Germany. Marx also upset the owner of the journal, Arnold Ruge, who objected to his editor's attack on capitalism.
While in Paris he became a close friend of Friedrich Engels, who had just finished writing a book about the lives of the industrial workers in England. Engels shared Marx's views on capitalism and after their first meeting Engels wrote that there was virtually "complete agreement in all theoretical fields". Marx and Engels decided to work together. It was a good partnership, whereas Marx was at his best when dealing with difficult abstract concepts, Engels had the ability to write for a mass audience.

The Revolutionary

Marx was expelled from Paris at the end of 1844 and with Engels, moved to Brussels (Belgium)where he remained for the next three years; The Communist Manifesto: First published on 21 February 1848, laid out the beliefs of the Communist League, (A federation of workers)a group who had come increasingly under the influence of Marx and Engels (like a party), who argued that the League must make their aims and intentions clear to the general public rather than hiding them as they had formerly been doing. The opening lines of the pamphlet set forth the principal basis of Marxism, that "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles."

Karl Marx and his family were expelled from Belgium and its territory.

But, invited back to Paris by the new French government. However, within a month of arriving, the French police ordered him out of the capital. Only one country remained who would take him, and on August 1849 he arrived in London.
During the first half of the 1850s the Marx family lived in poverty in a three room flat in the Soho quarter of London. Marx and Jenny already had four children and two more were to follow. Of these only three survived. Marx's major source of income at this time was Engels who was trying a steadily increasing income from the family business in Manchester. This was supplemented by weekly articles written as a foreign correspondent for the New York Daily Tribune.
Despite all his problems Marx continued to work and in 1867 the first volume of Das Kapital was published. In the final part of Das Kapital; Marx deals with the issue of revolution. Marx argued that the laws of capitalism will bring about its destruction. Capitalist competition will lead to a diminishing number of monopoly capitalists, while at the same time, the misery and oppression of the proletariat would increase. By 1871 his sixteen year old daughter, Eleanor Marx, was helping him with his work.

After a prolonged illness of Lungs, his health failed and he died in his sleep on 14th March, 1883. On his funeral,
Engels's speech included the passage:

On the 14th of March, at a quarter to three in the afternoon, the greatest living thinker ceased to think. He had been left alone for scarcely two minutes, and when we came back we found him in his armchair, peacefully gone to sleep—but forever.
Historical Materialism

Historical materialism is a methodological approach to the study of society, economics, and history, first articulated by Karl Marx (1818–1883).

Outside his specific economic theories, Marx’s main contribution to the social sciences has been his theory of historical materialism. Its starting point is anthropological. Human beings cannot survive without social organisation.

Marx then extended this premise by asserting the importance of the fact that, in order to carry out production and exchange, people have to enter into very definite social relations, most fundamentally "production relations".
Historical materialism posits that relations of production which become stabilised and reproduce themselves are structures which can no longer be changed gradually, piecemeal. They are modes of production. To use Hegel’s dialectical language, which was largely adopted (and adapted) by Marx: they can only change qualitatively through a complete social upheaval, a social revolution or counter-revolution.
There is no example in history of a ruling class not trying to defend its class rule, or of an exploited class not trying to limit (and occasionally eliminate) the exploitation it suffers. So outside classless society, the class struggle is a permanent feature of human society. In fact, one of the key theses of historical materialism is that ’the history of humankind is the history of class struggles’ (Marx, Communist Manifesto, 1848).
Historical materialism can be seen to rest on the following principles:

1. The basis of human society is how humans work on nature to produce the means of subsistence.

(Social Relations= due to production of material requirements of life that are a basic necessity to societies; compel individuals to enter into definite social relations that are independent of their will.)

2. There is a division of labour into social classes (relations of production) based on property ownership where some people live from the labour of others.

(Infrastructure & Superstructure= every society has its infrastructure and superstructure. Social relations are defined in terms of material conditions which Marx call infrastructure. Where, ECONOMIC BASE=INFRASTRUCTURE (Marx).

3. The system of class division is dependent on the mode of production.

(Forces and Relations of Production &Social Change in Terms of Social Classes= the relations of production arise out of the production process which overlap with the relations in ownership of means of production. Each period of contradiction between the forces and the relations of production is seen by Marx as a period of revolution)

4. The mode of production is based on the level of the productive forces.

(Dialectical Relationship between the Forces and Relations of production = social reality determines human consciousness; the history of the West, tells us about the ancient, feudal and capitalist (Bourgeois) modes of production)

5. Society moves from stage to stage when the dominant class is displaced by a new emerging class, by overthrowing the "political shell" that enforces the old relations of production no longer corresponding to the new productive forces. This takes place in the superstructure of society, the political arena in the form of revolution, whereby the underclass "liberates" the productive forces with new relations of production, and social relations, corresponding to it.

(Social Reality and Consciousness = provides a theory of revolution: the historical progress of society;
EXAMPLE: Feudal society developed capitalist relations of production. The French Revolution occurred when the capitalist relations of production reached a degree of maturity in Europe)

Marx's clearest formulation of his "Materialist Conception of History" was in the 1859 Preface to his book "A contribution to the Critique of Political Economy," whose relevant passage is reproduced here:
………It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or — this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms — with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution………..

Historical Materialism is not Economic Determinism- Marx recognises that without culture there can be no production possible.

Economic Determinism= is the theory which attributes primacy to the economic structure over politics in the development of human history.

Thus, clearly Historical materialism played an essential part in the formation of modern sociology. Because;
a)- Marx introduced an entirely new element to understand the structure of each society.
b)-Historical materialism introduced into sociology a new method of inquiry, new concepts, and some bold hypothesis.
c)- the immense effort to synthesise in a critical way, the entire legacy of social knowledge sine Aristotle.

(Karl Marx- great revolutionary who created History)

Forces, Relations and Modes of Production

Forces of Production

Refers to the material technical aspect of production as well as corresponding labour power and its competencies required in the production process.
Relations of Production

Refers to social relationships that arise directly out of the process of production. These social relationships include the relationships between the owners and non-owners of the means of production. These relationships decide and even determine the control and the capacity to possess the product.
Modes of Production

Mode of Production= A mode of production is the relationship between the relations of production and the forces of production. Modes of production can be distinguished from one another by different relationships between the forces and relations of production.

a)- Ancient Mode of Production= production system where the master has the right of ownership over the slave and appropriates the products of his labour through servitude, without allowing the slave to reproduce.

b)- Asiatic Mode of Production= Community based production wystem where ownership of land is communal and the existence of is expressed through the real or imaginary unity of these communities.

c)- Capitalist Mode of Production= Production system where the owners of means of production, capitalist, extract surplus labour from the proletariats in the form of profits.
d)-Feudal Mode of Production= Production system where the lords appropriate surplus labour from the serfs in the form of rent.
The concepts of forces, relations and mode of production are central to Marxist social theory. The mode of production, which for Marx is the main determinant of social phenomena, is made up of the forces of production and relations of production.
According to Marx, the combination of forces and relations of production means that the way people relate to the physical world and the way people relate to each other socially are bound up together in specific and necessary ways. People must consume to survive, but to consume they must produce, and in producing they necessarily enter into relations which exist independently of their will.
Class and Class Conflict

Marx's class theory rests on the premise that "the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles."

Class Conflict is the tension or antagonism which exists in society due to competing socio economic interests between people of different classes.
Class= When people share the same relationship to the means of production and also share the similar consciousness regarding their common interest, they constitute a class.
Class conflict= When two classes having basic antagonism of class interests struggle or clash in order to safeguard their class interests then it is called class conflict.
The clearest passages on the concept of class structure can be found in the third volume of his famous work, Capital (1894).
Thus, simply said “class is the manifestation of economic differentiation”
(R. Bendix & S.M Lipset).

“A social class in Marx’s terms is any aggregate of persons who perform the same function in the organisation of production”. (ibid).

From the Marxian point of view, class is not determined by the occupations or income but by the position an individual occupies and the function he performs in the process of production.
EXAMPLE: if there are two blacksmiths of whom one is the owner of the workshop and another paid worker, they belong to two different classes, though their occupation remains the same.
Slave owners, feudal landowners, or the owners of property such as factories and capital are the Dominant Class.

Those who work for the, - slaves, peasants or industrial labourers- are the sub-ordinate class.
Class Structure

 In the world of capitalism, for example, the nuclear cell of the capitalist system, the factory, is the prime locus of antagonism between classes--between exploiters and exploited, between buyers and sellers of labour power--rather than of functional collaboration.

Marx distinguishes three classes under the ‘Social Classes’:

1). Owners of simple labour power or labourers whose source of income is labour

2).owners of capital or capitalists whose main source of income is profit or surplus value

3). Landowners whose main source of income is ground rent. In this way the class structure of modern capitalist society is composed of three major classes (salaried labourers/workers, capitalists and Landowners.

Thus society could be divided into two major classes (haves, have-nots) OR Bourgeoisie and the Proletariat.

Proletariat=In Marxist theory, the proletariat is the class of a capitalist society that does not have ownership of the means of production and whose only means of subsistence is to sell their labour power for a wage or salary.
Bourgeoisie =those people who own the means of production for example Landowners, capitalists in industrial societies.
According to Marxism, capitalism is a system based on the exploitation of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie. This exploitation takes place as follows: the workers, who own no means of production of their own, must use the means of production that are property of others in order to produce, and, consequently, earn their living. Instead of hiring those means of production, they themselves get hired by capitalists and work for them, producing goods or services. These goods or services become the property of the capitalist, who sells them at the market.
Thus, Marx’s sociology is, in fact, a sociology of the class struggle and broadly society could be divided into two major classes.
The criteria for class determination are:

  1. Objective Criteria:
    People sharing the same relationship to the Means of production comprise a class.

  2. Subjective Criteria:
    any human grouping with a similar relationship would make a class for, not a class, if subjective criteria are not included. The members of any one class not only have similar consciousness but they also share a similar consciousness that they belong to the same class. This similar class consciousness towards acting together for the common interests is what Marx calls- “Class for itself”.

Classification of Societies and the Emergence of Classes:
Marx differentiated stages of human history on the basis of their economic regimes or modes of production.
He distinguished 4 different modes of production called:
b)The ancient
c)The Feudal
d) The Bourgeois (or Capitalist)

Marx predicted that all social development will culminate into a stage called Communism.

So, basically the classification of societies or various stages of human history according to Marx could be summarised into:

  1. Primitive-communal,

  2. Slave-owning

  3. Feudal

  4. Capitalist

  5. Communist stages.

Marx and Engels described hunter-gatherer society as 'primitive communism'.

  1. Primitive-communal:
    The earliest human societies were classless societies based on co-operation and consensus, without the systematic exploitation or oppression of any one group by another.

    This type of society, which is usually called hunter-gatherer society, everyone was involved in producing the necessities of life (food, shelter etc) because otherwise the group would starve. There was no room for elite to develop who could exploit the labour of others.

  2. The Slave owning society:
    In the slave owning society, primitive tools were perfected and bronze and iron tools replaced the stone and wooden implements.
    Large scale agriculture, live stock raising, mining and handicrafts developed.

For the first time ever, human society was able to produce a permanent surplus (the amount of food and goods produced over and above what they needed to survive). This allowed a section of society to be released from the day-to-day work of producing the necessities of life without endangering the survival of the group.

In this system, the history of exploitation of humans by humans and the history of class struggle began.

Thus, Marx believes that as the productivity of labour increased and some societies became more complex, a layer of administrators also emerged.

  1. The Feudal Society:
    The feudal system is a peasant-based economy where the peasants control what they produce on their ‘own’ plot of land but are forced to give a portion of the fruits of their labour to the feudal lord who owns or controls the land where they live.
    But, this relation was more progressive than the Slavery system, because they make the labourers interested to a large extent in providing labour.
    Due to new discoveries- the forces of production underwent changes, the increasing population increased demands and new markets were discovered due to Colonialism. This led to the growth of mass scale manufacture. Which became possible due to the advances in technology. This brought the unorganised labourers at one place (factory).

These new systems of production demanded a new force in term so of production which changed the mode of production from Feudalism to capitalism.

  1. Capitalist:
    The working-class, with no land or substantial inherited wealth, have no means of supporting themselves and are forced to sell their labour to survive.

    Capitalists buy this labour power, then get their money back and make profits by selling necessities and other products to the working-class and other classes in society.

    Taking the maximum profit and giving very little in return to the Labour.

  2. Communist Stages:
    Marx writes ‘Communism is the positive abolition of private property, of human self-alienation, and thus the real appropriation of human nature, through and for man’.

    According to communist theory, the only way to abolish capitalist inequalities is to have the proletariat (working class), who collectively constitute the main producer of wealth in society, and who are perpetually exploited and marginalised by the bourgeoisie (wealthy class), to overthrow the capitalist system in a wide-ranging social revolution. The revolution, in the theory of most individuals and groups espousing communist revolution, usually involves an armed rebellion.

Alienation: (separation from)
“refers to the sense of powerlessness, isolation and meaninglessness experience by human beings when they are confronted with social institutions and conditions that they cannot control and consider oppressive”

According to Marx alienated labour involves four aspects:
a) Worker’s alienation from the object that he produces
b)From the process of Production
c)from himself &
d)from the community of his fellowmen.

Thus, Alienation leads to Dehumanisation.

De-alienation: Is the reverse process

The concept of Dialectics:

Dialectic: refers to a method of intellectual discussion by dialogue. This simply meant logic and a process as used by Aristotle and Plato.
Dialectical Materialism is a way of understanding reality; whether thoughts, emotions, or the material world.
Simply stated, this methodology is the combination of
 Dialectics and Materialism. The materialist dialectic is the theoretical foundation of Marxism (while being communist is the practice of Marxism).
Marx use of ‘dialectics’ evolved with his concept of dialectical materialism which means:

  • The opposite forces which are always present constitute the moving force of history.

  • The opposite forces in society never balance each other. (One of them is stronger than other).

  • History presents the process of action and reaction between the forces.

  • Capital, which represents one of the forces is the thesis, and labour is the anti-thesis. THIS ULTIMATELY LEADS TO CLASS STRUGGLE.


  • Marx and Engels believed that change from one phase to the next was a state of revolution brought by conflicts between old institutions and new productive forces.

  • Marx’s concept of socialist revolution presupposes an era of shift from capitalism to socialism.

  • Marx believed that this would usher in a stage of class less society with the hope for all members of society.

Thus, Marx predicted that the capitalists would grow fewer and stronger as a result of their endless competition; that the middle class would disappear into the working class, and that the growing poverty of the workers would spark a successful revolution.

He elaborates that this would be unlike other wars- ‘a historic one’.

What is Communism according to Marx?

Therefore communism is a specific stage of historical development that emerges from the development of the productive forces that leads to a superabundance of material wealth, allowing for distribution based on need and social relations based on freely associated individuals.

Modern theory of communism:

Thus, communism is a political ideology derived from socialism and particularly from Marx and subsequent Marxists, which aims at the creation of societies in which private productive property, social Classes and the sate are absent.

Marx’s Views on Religion:

Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions.

Karl Marx, Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right.

Thank you,

Notes Compiled by Suman Pudasaini
ESO- Counselor,
IGNOU- PI-9602- ICA, study center,
Gyaneshwor, Kathmandu

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