Dynamics ofSocial Change

Marx's focus on the process of social change is so central tothis thinking that it informs all his writings. The motor forceof history for Marx is not to be found in any extra-human agency,be it "providence" or the "objective spirit."Marx insisted that men make their own history. Human history isthe process through which men change themselves even as they pitthemselves against nature to dominate it. In the course of theirhistory men increasingly transform nature to make it better servetheir own purposes. And, in the process of transforming nature,they transform themselves.

In contrast to all animals who can only passively adjust tonature's requirements by finding a niche in the ecological orderthat allows them to subsist and develop, man is active inrelation to his surroundings. He fashions tools with which totransform his natural habitat. Men "begin to distinguishthemselves fro animals as soon as they begin to produce theirmeans of subsistence. . . . In producing their means ofsubsistence men indirectly produce their actual materiallife."46

Men "who every day remake their own life"47in the process of production can do so only in association withothers. This is what makes man a zoon politicon. Therelations men establish with nature through their labor arereflected in their social relationships.

The production of life, both of one's own by labor and of fresh life by procreation, appears at once as a double relationship, on the one hand as a natural, on the other as a social relationship. By social is meant the cooperation of several individuals, no matter under what conditions, in what manner or to what end. It follows from this that a determinate mode of production, or industrial stage, is always bound up with a determinate mode of cooperation, or social stage, and this mode of cooperation is itself a 'productive force.'48

In their struggle against nature, and to gain their livelihoodthrough associated labor, men create specific forms of socialorganization in tune with specific modes of production. All thesemodes of social organization, with the exception of thoseprevailing in the original stage of primitive communism, arecharacterized by social inequality. As societies emerge fromoriginally undifferentiated hordes, the division of labor leadsto the emergence of stratification, of classes of mendistinguished by their differential access to the means ofproduction and their differential power. Given relative scarcity,whatever economic surplus has been accumulated will be preemptedby those who have attained dominance through their expropriationof the means of production. Yet this dominance never remainsunchallenged. This is why "the history of all hithertoexisting society is the history of class struggles."

Free men and slaves, patricians and plebeians, barons andserfs, guildmasters and journeymen, exploiters and exploited haveconfronted one another from the beginning of recorded time. YetMarx, insisted on the principle of historical specificity, thatis, he thought it essential to note that each particular classantagonism, rooted in particular productive conditions, must beanalyzed in its own right. Each stage in history is conceived asa functional whole, with its own peculiar modes of production,which give rise to distinctive types of antagonisms betweenexploiting and exploited classes. Not all exploited classes havea chance to assert themselves in successful combat against theirexploiters. The revolts of the slaves of antiquity or of theGerman peasantry at the time of the Reformation were doomed tofailure because these classes did not represent a mode ofproduction that would dominate in the future. On the other hand,the bourgeoisie in the last stages of feudalism and theproletariat in modern times were destined to be victorious sincethey represented a future mode of production and socialorganization.

While Marx can be considered a historical evolutionist, itwould be a mistake to think of him as a believer in unilinearevolution. He was acutely aware of periods of relative stagnationin human history--for example, in Oriental societies--and he knewof historical situations characterized by a stalemate, atemporary equilibrium, between social classes. His writings onthe regime of Napoleon III illustrate in masterful fashion ahistorical situation in which the forces of the old class orderand of the new are so nearly balanced that neither is able toprevail, thus giving rise to a "Bonapartist" stalemate.Moreover, though throughout his life Marx held fast to the beliefthat the future belongs to the working class, which will lead theway to the emergence of a classless society, he was neverthelesswilling to consider the possibility that the working class maynot be equal to its "historical task" so that mankindwould degenerate into a new kind of barbarism.

Marx conceived of four major successive modes of production inthe history of mankind after the initial stage of primitivecommunism: the Asiatic, the ancient, the feudal, and the modernbourgeois form. Each of these came into existence throughcontradictions and antagonisms that had developed in the previousorder. "No social order ever disappears before all theproductive forces for which there is room in it have beendeveloped; and new higher relations of production never appearbefore the material conditions of their existence have matured inthe womb of the old society."49

Class antagonisms specific to each particular mode ofproduction led to the emergence of classes whose interests couldno longer be asserted within the framework of the old order; atthe same time, the growth of the productive forces reached thelimits imposed by previous productive relations. When thishappened, the new classes, which represented a novel productiveprinciple, broke down the old order, and the new productiveforces, which were developed in the matrix of the old order,created the material conditions for further advance. However,"the bourgeois relations of production are the lastantagonistic form of the social process of production."50When they have been overthrown by a victorious proletariat,"the prehistory of human society will have come to anend,"51 and the dialectical principle that ruledthe previous development of mankind ceases to operate, as harmonyreplaces social conflict in the affairs of men.

Marx's emphasis on the existential roots of ideas, his stresson the need to view thinking as one among other socialactivities, has remained--no matter what qualifications have tobe made--one of the enduring parts of his work. Together with hiseconomic interpretation of the course of human history, histheory of class relations, and his focus on the alienatingaspects of social life in modern society, it has become apermanent part of the sociological enterprise.

From Coser, 1977:55-57.


  1. Selected Writings, p. 53.
  2. Ibid., p. 61.
  3. Ibid., p. 62.
  4. Ibid., p. 52.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid., p. 53.

Back to "TheSociology of Knowledge"
Back to the Index