Karl Marx was a socialist theoretician and organizer, a major figure
in the history of economic and philosophical thought, and a great
social prophet. But it is as a sociological theorist that he commands
our interest here.
Society, according to Marx, comprised a moving balance of antithetical
forces that generate social change by their tension and struggle.
Marx's vision was based on an evolutionary point of departure. For
him, struggle rather than peaceful growth was the engine of progress;
strife was the father of all things, and social conflict the core
of historical process. This thinking was in contrast with most of
the doctrines of his eighteenth century predecessors, but in tune
with much nineteenth century thought.
Marx the motivating force in history was the manner in which men
relate to one another in their continuous struggle to wrest their
livelihood from nature. "The first historical act is . . .
the production of material life itself. This is indeed a historical
act, a fundamental condition of all history." The quest for
a sufficiency in eating and drinking, for habitation and for clothing
were man's primary goals at the dawn of the race, and these needs
are still central when attempts are made to analyze the complex
anatomy of modern society. But man's struggle against nature does
not cease when these needs are gratified. Man is a perpetually dissatisfied
animal. When primary needs have been met, this "leads to new
needs--and this production of new needs is the first historical
act." New needs evolve when means are found to allow the satisfaction
of older ones.
the effort to satisfy primary and secondary needs, men engage in
antagonistic cooperation as soon as they leave the primitive, communal
stage of development. As soon as a division of labor emerges in
human society, that division leads to the formation of antagonistic
classes, the prime actors in the historical drama.
was a relativizing historicist according to whom all social relations
between men, as well as all systems of ideas, are specifically rooted
in historical periods. "Ideas and categories are no more eternal
than the relations which they express. They are historical and transitory
products." For example, whereas the classical economists had
seen the tripartite division among landowners, capitalists, and
wage earners as eternally given in the natural order of things,
Marx considered such categories as typical only for specific historical
periods, as products of an historically transient state of affairs.
specificity is the hallmark of Marx's approach. When he asserted,
for example, that all previous historical periods were marked by
class struggles, he immediately added that these struggles differed
according to historical stages. In marked distinction to his radical
predecessors who had tended to see history as a monotonous succession
of struggles between rich and poor, or between the powerless and
the powerful, Marx maintained that, although class struggles had
marked all history, the contenders in the battle had changed over
time. Although there might have been some similarity between the
journeymen of the late Middle Ages who waged their battle against
guildmasters and the modern industrial workers who confronted capitalists,
the contenders were, nevertheless, in a functionally different situation.
The character of the overall social matrix determined the forms
of struggle which were contained within it. The fact that modern
factory workers, as distinct from medieval journey- men, are forever
expropriated from command over the means of production and hence
forced to sell their labor power to those who control these means
makes them a class qualitatively different form artisans or journeymen.
The fact that modern workers are formally "free" to sell
their labor while being existentially constrained to do so makes
their condition historically specific and functionally distinct
from that of earlier exploited classes.
thinking contrasted sharply with that of Comte, as well as of Hegel,
for whom the evolution of mankind resulted primarily from the evolution
of ideas or of the human spirit. Marx took as his point of departure
the evolution in man's material conditions, the varying ways in
which men combined together in order to gain a livelihood. "Legal
relations as well as form of state are to be grasped neither from
themselves nor from the so-called general development of the human
mind, but rather have their roots in the material conditions of
life, the sum total of which Hegel . . . combines under the name
of 'civil society'. . . The anatomy of civil society is to be sought
in political economy."
change of social systems could not be explained, according to Marx,
by extra-social factors such as geography or climate, since these
remain relatively constant in the face of major historical transformations.
Nor can such change be explained by reference to the emergence of
novel ideas. The genesis and acceptance of ideas depend on something
that is not an idea. Ideas are not prime movers but are the reflection,
direct or sublimated, of the material interests that impel men in
their dealings with others.
was from Hegel, though perhaps also from Montesquieu, that Marx
learned the holistic approach that regarded society as a structurally
interrelated whole. Consequently, for Marx, any aspect 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 developing totalities. His own contribution lay in identifying
an independent variable that played only a minor part in Hegel's
system: the mode of economic production.
historical phenomena were the result of an interplay of many components,
all but one of them, the economic factor, were in the last analysis
dependent variables. "The political, legal, philosophical,
literary, and artistic development rests on the economic. But they
all react upon one another and upon the economic base. It is not
the case that the economic situation is the sole active cause and
that everything else is merely a passive effect. There is, rather,
a reciprocity within a field of economic necessity which in the
last instance always asserts itself.
sum total of the relations of production, that is, the relations
men establish with each other when they utilize existing raw materials
and technologies in the pursuit of their productive goals, constitute
the real foundations upon which the whole cultural superstructure
of society comes to be erected. By relations of production Marx
does not only mean technology, though this is an important part,
but the social relations people enter into by participating in economic
life. "Machinery is no more an economic category than is the
ox which draws the plough. The modern workshop, which is based on
the use of machinery, is a social relation of production, an economic
mode of economic production is expressed in relationships between
men, which are independent of any particular individual and not
subject to individual wills and purposes.
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.
Basic to these observations is that men are born into societies
in which property relations have already been determined. These
property relations in turn give rise to different social classes.
Just as a man cannot choose who is to be his father, so he has no
choice as to his class. (Social mobility, though recognized by Marx,
plays practically no role in his analysis.) Once a man is ascribed
to a specific class by virtue of his birth, once he has become feudal
lord or a serf, an industrial worker or a capitalist, his mode of
behavior is prescribed for him. "Determinate individuals, who
are productively active in a definite way, enter into. . .determinate
social and political relations." This class role largely defines
the man. In his preface to Das Kapital Marx wrote, "Here individuals
are dealt with only in so far as they are personifications of economic
categories, embodiments of particular class-relations and class-
interests." In saying this, Marx does not deny the operation
of other variables but concentrates on class roles as primary determinants.
locations in the class spectrum lead to different class interests.
Such differing interests flow not from class consciousness or the
lack of it among individuals, but from objective positions in relation
to the process of production. Men may well be unaware of their class
interests and yet be moved by them, as it were, behind their backs.
his emphasis on the objective determinants of man's class-bound
behavior, Marx was not reifying society and class at the expense
of individual actors. "It is above all necessary to avoid postulating
'society' once more as an abstraction confronting the individual.
The individual is a social being. The manifestation of his life--even
when it does not appear directly in the form of social manifestation,
accomplished in association with other men--is therefore a manifestation
and affirmation of social life." Man is inevitably enmeshed
in a network of social relations which constrain his actions; therefore
attempts to abolish such constraints altogether are bound to fail.
Man is human only in society, yet it is possible for him at specific
historical junctures to change the nature of these constraints.
division of society into classes gives rise to political, ethical,
philosophical, and religious views of the world, views which express
existing class relations and tend either to consolidate or to undermine
the power and authority of the dominant class. "The ideas of
the ruling class are, in every age, the ruling ideas: i.e., the
class which is the dominant material force in society is at the
same time its dominant intellectual force. The class which has the
means of material production at its disposal, has control at the
same time over the means of mental production." However, oppressed
classes, although hampered by the ideological dominance of oppressors,
generate counter-ideologies to combat them. In revolutionary or
prerevolutionary periods it even happens that certain representatives
of the dominant class shift allegiance. Thus, "some of the
bourgeois ideologists, who have raised themselves to the level of
comprehending theoretically the historical movement as whole"
go over to the proletariat.
social order is marked by continuous change in the material forces
of production, that is, the forces of nature that can be harnessed
by the appropriate technologies and skills. As a consequence, "the
social relations of production are altered, transformed, with the
change and development of the material means of production, of the
forces of production." At a certain point the changed social
relations of production come into conflict with existing property
relations, that is, with existing divisions between owners and nonowners.
When this is the case, representatives of ascending classes come
to perceive existing property relations as a fetter upon further
development. Those classes that expect to gain the ascendancy by
a change in property relations become revolutionary.
social relationships begin to develop within older social structures
and result from contradictions and tensions within that structure
at the same time as they exacerbate them. For example, new modes
of production slowly emerged within late feudal society and allowed
the bourgeoisie, which controlled these new modes of production,
effectively to challenge the hold of the classes that had dominated
the feudal order. As the bourgeois mode of production gained sufficient
specific weight, it burst asunder the feudal relations in which
it first made its appearance. "The economic structure of capitalist
society has grown out of the economic structure of feudal society.
The dissolution of the latter sets free the elements of the former."
Similarly, the capitalist mode of production brings into being a
proletarian class of factory workers. As these men acquire class
consciousness, they discover their fundamental antagonism to the
bourgeois class and band together to overthrow a regime to which
they owe their existence. "The proletariat carries out the
sentence which private property, by creating the proletariat, passes
upon itself." New social and economic forms are fashioned in
the matrix of their predecessors.