Karl Marx

The Work

Karl Marx was a socialist theoretician and organizer, a majorfigure in the history of economic and philosophical thought, anda great social prophet. But it is as a sociological theorist thathe commands our interest here.

The Overall Doctrine

Society, according to Marx, comprised a moving balance ofantithetical forces that generate social change by their tensionand struggle. Marx's vision was based on an evolutionary point ofdeparture. For him, struggle rather than peaceful growth was theengine of progress; strife was the father of all things, andsocial conflict the core of historical process. This thinking wasin contrast with most of the doctrines of his eighteenth centurypredecessors, but in tune with much nineteenth century thought.

To Marx the motivating force in history was the manner inwhich men relate to one another in their continuous struggle towrest their livelihood from nature. "The first historicalact is . . . the production of material life itself. This isindeed a historical act, a fundamental condition of allhistory."1 The quest for a sufficiency in eatingand drinking, for habitation and for clothing were man's primarygoals at the dawn of the race, and these needs are still centralwhen attempts are made to analyze the complex anatomy of modernsociety. But man's struggle against nature does not cease whenthese needs are gratified. Man is a perpetually dissatisfiedanimal. When primary needs have been met, this "leads to newneeds--and this production of new needs is the first historicalact."2 New needs evolve when means are found toallow the satisfaction of older ones.

In the effort to satisfy primary and secondary needs, menengage in antagonistic cooperation as soon as they leave theprimitive, communal stage of development. As soon as a divisionof labor emerges in human society, that division leads to theformation of antagonistic classes, the prime actors in thehistorical drama.

Marx was a relativizing historicist according to whom allsocial relations between men, as well as all systems of ideas,are specifically rooted in historical periods. "Ideas andcategories are no more eternal than the relations which theyexpress. They are historical and transitory products."3For example, whereas the classical economists had seen thetripartite division among landowners, capitalists, and wageearners as eternally given in the natural order of things, Marxconsidered such categories as typical only for specifichistorical periods, as products of an historically transientstate of affairs.

Historical specificity is the hallmark of Marx's approach.When he asserted, for example, that all previous historicalperiods were marked by class struggles, he immediately added thatthese struggles differed according to historical stages. Inmarked distinction to his radical predecessors who had tended tosee history as a monotonous succession of struggles between richand poor, or between the powerless and the powerful, Marxmaintained that, although class struggles had marked all history,the contenders in the battle had changed over time. Althoughthere might have been some similarity between the journeymen ofthe late Middle Ages who waged their battle against guildmastersand the modern industrial workers who confronted capitalists, thecontenders were, nevertheless, in a functionally differentsituation. The character of the overall social matrix determinedthe forms of struggle which were contained within it. The factthat modern factory workers, as distinct from medieval journey-men, are forever expropriated from command over the means ofproduction and hence forced to sell their labor power to thosewho control these means makes them a class qualitativelydifferent form artisans or journeymen. The fact that modernworkers are formally "free" to sell their labor whilebeing existentially constrained to do so makes their conditionhistorically specific and functionally distinct from that ofearlier exploited classes.

Marx's thinking contrasted sharply with that of Comte, as wellas of Hegel, for whom the evolution of mankind resulted primarilyfrom the evolution of ideas or of the human spirit. Marx took ashis point of departure the evolution in man's materialconditions, the varying ways in which men combined together inorder to gain a livelihood. "Legal relations as well as formof state are to be grasped neither from themselves nor from theso-called general development of the human mind, but rather havetheir roots in the material conditions of life, the sum total ofwhich Hegel . . . combines under the name of 'civil society'. . .The anatomy of civil society is to be sought in politicaleconomy."4

The change of social systems could not be explained, accordingto Marx, by extra-social factors such as geography or climate,since these remain relatively constant in the face of majorhistorical transformations. Nor can such change be explained byreference to the emergence of novel ideas. The genesis andacceptance of ideas depend on something that is not an idea.Ideas are not prime movers but are the reflection, direct orsublimated, of the material interests that impel men in theirdealings with others.5

It was from Hegel, though perhaps also from Montesquieu, thatMarx learned the holistic approach that regarded society as astructurally interrelated whole. Consequently, for Marx, anyaspect of that whole--be it legal codes, systems of education,religion, or art--could not be understood by itself. Societies,moreover, are not only structured wholes but developingtotalities. His own contribution lay in identifying anindependent variable that played only a minor part in Hegel'ssystem: the mode of economic production.

Although historical phenomena were the result of an interplayof many components, all but one of them, the economic factor,were in the last analysis dependent variables. "Thepolitical, legal, philosophical, literary, and artisticdevelopment rests on the economic. But they all react upon oneanother and upon the economic base. It is not the case that theeconomic situation is the sole active cause and thateverything else is merely a passive effect. There is, rather, areciprocity within a field of economic necessity which in thelast instance always asserts itself.6

The sum total of the relations of production, that is, therelations men establish with each other when they utilizeexisting raw materials and technologies in the pursuit of theirproductive goals, constitute the real foundations upon which thewhole cultural superstructure of society comes to beerected. By relations of production Marx does not only meantechnology, though this is an important part, but the socialrelations people enter into by participating in economic life."Machinery is no more an economic category than is the oxwhich draws the plough. The modern workshop, which is based onthe use of machinery, is a social relation of production, aneconomic category."7

The mode of economic production is expressed in relationshipsbetween men, which are independent of any particular individualand not subject to individual wills and purposes.

In the social production which men carry on they enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will; these relations of production correspond to a definite stage of development of their material powers of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of reality--the real foundation, on which legal and political superstructures arise and to which definite forms of social consciousness correspond. The mode of production of material life determines the general character of the social, political and spiritual processes of life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being determines their consciousness.8

Basic to these observations is that men are born intosocieties in which property relations have already beendetermined. These property relations in turn give rise todifferent social classes. Just as a man cannot choose who is tobe his father, so he has no choice as to his class. (Socialmobility, though recognized by Marx, plays practically no role inhis analysis.) Once a man is ascribed to a specific class byvirtue of his birth, once he has become feudal lord or a serf, anindustrial worker or a capitalist, his mode of behavior isprescribed for him. "Determinate individuals, who areproductively active in a definite way, enter into. . .determinatesocial and political relations."9 This class rolelargely defines the man. In his preface to Das KapitalMarx wrote, "Here individuals are dealt with only in so faras they are personifications of economic categories, embodimentsof particular class-relations and class- interests." Insaying this, Marx does not deny the operation of other variablesbut concentrates on class roles as primary determinants.

Different locations in the class spectrum lead to differentclass interests. Such differing interests flow not from classconsciousness or the lack of it among individuals, but fromobjective positions in relation to the process of production. Menmay well be unaware of their class interests and yet be moved bythem, as it were, behind their backs.

Despite his emphasis on the objective determinants of man'sclass-bound behavior, Marx was not reifying society and class atthe expense of individual actors. "It is above all necessaryto avoid postulating 'society' once more as an abstractionconfronting the individual. The individual is a social being.The manifestation of his life--even when it does not appeardirectly in the form of social manifestation, accomplishedin association with other men--is therefore a manifestation andaffirmation of social life."10 Man is inevitablyenmeshed in a network of social relations which constrain hisactions; therefore attempts to abolish such constraintsaltogether are bound to fail. Man is human only in society, yetit is possible for him at specific historical junctures to changethe nature of these constraints.

The division of society into classes gives rise to political,ethical, philosophical, and religious views of the world, viewswhich express existing class relations and tend either toconsolidate or to undermine the power and authority of thedominant class. "The ideas of the ruling class are, in everyage, the ruling ideas: i.e., the class which is the dominant materialforce in society is at the same time its dominant intellectualforce. The class which has the means of material production atits disposal, has control at the same time over the means ofmental production."11 However, oppressed classes,although hampered by the ideological dominance of oppressors,generate counter-ideologies to combat them. In revolutionary orprerevolutionary periods it even happens that certainrepresentatives of the dominant class shift allegiance. Thus,"some of the bourgeois ideologists, who have raisedthemselves to the level of comprehending theoretically thehistorical movement as whole"12 go over to theproletariat.

Every social order is marked by continuous change in thematerial forces of production, that is, the forces of nature thatcan be harnessed by the appropriate technologies and skills. As aconsequence, "the social relations of production arealtered, transformed, with the change and development of thematerial means of production, of the forces of production."13At a certain point the changed social relations of productioncome into conflict with existing property relations, that is,with existing divisions between owners and nonowners. When thisis the case, representatives of ascending classes come toperceive existing property relations as a fetter upon furtherdevelopment. Those classes that expect to gain the ascendancy bya change in property relations become revolutionary.

New social relationships begin to develop within older socialstructures and result from contradictions and tensions withinthat structure at the same time as they exacerbate them. Forexample, new modes of production slowly emerged within latefeudal society and allowed the bourgeoisie, which controlledthese new modes of production, effectively to challenge the holdof the classes that had dominated the feudal order. As thebourgeois mode of production gained sufficient specific weight,it burst asunder the feudal relations in which it first made itsappearance. "The economic structure of capitalist societyhas grown out of the economic structure of feudal society. Thedissolution of the latter sets free the elements of theformer."14 Similarly, the capitalist mode ofproduction brings into being a proletarian class of factoryworkers. As these men acquire class consciousness, they discovertheir fundamental antagonism to the bourgeois class and bandtogether to overthrow a regime to which they owe their existence."The proletariat carries out the sentence which privateproperty, by creating the proletariat, passes upon itself."15New social and economic forms are fashioned in the matrix oftheir predecessors.

From Lewis A. Coser, Masters of Sociological Thought: Ideasin Historical and Social Context, 2nd Ed., Fort Worth:Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1977: 43-47.



  1. Karl Marx, Selected Writings in Sociology and Social Philosophy, newly translated by T.B. Bottomore (London, McGraw-Hill, 1964), p. 60. I have used this useful volume throughout, since it is easily available. Other easily available editions, such as the Moscow edition of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Selected Works, 2 vols. (Moscow, Foreign Language Publishing House, 1962), have also been used extensively so as to facilitate students' search for relevant materials. In some cases, where the translation was outmoded, I have slightly modified it.
  2. Selected Writings.
  3. Karl Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy, Chapter II, p. 1.
  4. Selected Works, I, p. 362
  5. I have relied heavily in this paragraph, and in those that follow, on Sidney Hook's brilliant article, "Materialism," in the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences (New York, Macmillan, 1933).
  6. Selected Works, II, p. 304. This is a late formulation, earlier statements are considerably more dogmatic in their insistence on the priority of economic factors.
  7. Selected Writings p. 93.
  8. Ibid., p. 51.
  9. Ibid., p. 74.
  10. Ibid., p. 77.
  11. Ibid., p. 78.
  12. Selected Works, I. P. 43.
  13. Selected Writings, p. 147.
  14. Ibid., p. 133.
  15. Ibid., p. 232

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