Marx’s Ideas:

  • Marx saw harm caused by modern industrial society taking shape of 19th Century Europe, and the promise of progress to a better world
  • Believed possible to understand society scientifically and this knowledge would point to better society = “scientific socialism”
  • Marxism continuation of Enlightenment project 
  • Marx didn’t see progress as smooth and gradual (evolution) but a contradictory process in which capitalism would inevitably create human misery until classless communist society formed
  • Marx = revolutionary sociologist
  • His ideas came to form basis of communism

1 Historical Materialism

  • Materialism = humans are beings with material needs e.g. food, clothing etc. and we must meet them through forces of production/means of production
  • Early history, these forces = unaided human labour
  • Over time tools, machines etc. assist production
  • Humans also cooperate with each other = social relations of production
  • As forces of production grow, so do social relations
  • Division of labour develops = division between two classes:
  • A class that owns the means
  • A class of labourers
  • Forces and relations of production = mode of production
  • Mode creates economic base that determines all other features of society = superstructure

2 Class Society and Exploitation 

  • Early history = no classes = primitive communism
  • In class societies, one class owns means = can exploit labourers for their own benefit; can control society’s surplus product (this is the difference between what labourers actually produce and what is needed to keep them alive and working)
  • Marx identifies 3 successive class societies
  • Ancient society: exploitation of slaves legally tied to owners
  • Feudal society: exploitation of serfs legally tied to land
  • Capitalist society: exploitation of free wage labourers

3 Capitalism

  • Division between class of owners (bourgeoisie) and class of labourers (proletariat)
  • Has three distinctive features: proletariat legally free and separate rom means of production. As they don’t own means, have to sell their labour power to bourgeoisie in return for wages
  • But exchange NOT equal. Difference between the two = surplus value
  • Second, through comp between capitalists, ownerships of the means become concentrated so people forced into proletariat. Comp also forces capitalists to pay low wages = in immiseration of proletariat
  • Thirdly, capitalism continually expands forces of production in pursuit of profit
  • Concentration of ownership + deskilling of proletariat = class polarisation

4 Class Consciousness

  • Capitalism sows seeds of its own destruction
  • So, proletariat move from being merely class in itself (members occupy same economic position) to become class for itself (members class conscious – aware of needs to overthrow capitalism)

5 Ideology

  • Class that owns means of production also owns + controls means of mental production (production of ideas)
  • Dominant ideas in society are therefore ideas of economically dominant class
  • Those that spread said ideas e.g. religion and education, all server dominant class by producing ideologies
  • Ideology fosters false consciousness in subordinate classes and helps sustain class inequality
  • But capitalism impoverishes workers, so class consciousness develops = see true position as “wage slaves”

6 Alienation

  • M believes true nature based on capacity to create things to meet needs
  • Alienation result of loss of control over our labour + its products = separation from true nature
  • Exists in all class societies
  • Under capitalism, alienation reaches peak for two reason
  • Workers completely separated from and have no control over forces of production
  • Division of labour is at its most intense + detailed: worker reduced to unskilled labour mindlessly repeating meaningless tasks

7 The State, Revolution and Communism

  • Marx defines state as “armed bodies of men”. Exists to protect interest of class of owners and who control it. Form the “ruling class”
  • Use the state as a weapon in class struggle to protect their property, suppress opposition and prevent revolution
  • Previous revolutions had always been one minority class overthrowing another, but M believes, proletarian revolution that overthrows capitalism will be first revolution of majority against minority
  • Will abolish state and create classless communist society
  • Abolish exploitation, replace private ownership with social, replace production for profit with production to satisfy human needs
  • End alienation as humans regain control of labours and products

Criticisms of Marx:

Marx’s View of Class:

  • Has a simplistic, one-dimensional view of inequality – class only important division. Weber argues status and power differences can also be important sources of inequality. Feminists argue gender more fundamental source of inequality
  • Marx’s two class model too simplistic e.g. Weber divides proletariat into skilled and unskilled sub-groups
  • Class polarisation hasn’t occurred! Instead middle class being swallowed up by expanding proletariat

Economic Determinism

  • Marx’s base-superstructure criticised for economic determinism – view that economic factors sole cause of everything in society e.g. social change
  • This fails to recognise humans have free will and can bring about change through conscious actions
  • Model neglects role of ideas e.g. Weber argues emergence of new set of ideas helped modern capitalism into being
  • Marx’s predictions of revolution haven’t come true! Predicted revolution would occur in more advanced capitalist countries but that isn’t the case
  • But, in defence of M, while there are examples of economic determinism in his work, there are also parts where he argues “men make their own history” = reference to free will? Not just economic factors

The ‘Two Marxism’s’

  • Absence of revolutions led many Marxists to reject base-superstructure model and economic determinism – instead tried to explain why capitalism has continued
  • Can identify two broad approaches, Gouldner (1973) described them as:
  • Humanistic/Critical Marxism – some similarities with action theory + interpretive sociology
  • Scientific/structuralist Marxism – similar to positivist sociology
Humanist/Critical Marxism Scientific/Structuralist Marxism
Example: Gramsci Example: Althusser
Focuses on alienation and people’s subjective experience of the world Writes about laws of capitalist development working with ‘iron necessity’ towards inevitable results
Marxism = political critique of capitalism as alienating and inhuman + a call to overthrow it Marxism = science. Discovers laws that govern workings of capitalism
Voluntarism: humans have free will. Active agents who make their own history. Their consciousness + ideas central in changing the world. Determinism: structural factors determine course of history. Individuals passive puppets – victims of ideology manipulated by forced beyond their control
Socialism will occur when people conscious of need to overthrow capitalism. Encourages political action; time always ripe for revolution Socialism will only occur when contradictions of capitalism bring about system’s inevitable end. Tends to discourage political action

Gramsci and Hegemony

  • Argues proletariat must develop its own ‘counter-hegemony’ to win leadership of society
  • First leader of Italian Communist Party (1920’s) – rejects economic determinism; transition from cap to comm will never come about simply through economic factors
  • Although mass unemployment + failing wages can create preconditions for revolution, IDEAS central to whether change occurs
  • G sees ruling class maintaining dominance through:
  • Coercion: uses the army, police, prisons etc of capitalist state to force other classes to accept the rule
  • Consent (hegemony): uses ideas and values to persuade subordinate classes that rule is legitimate

Hegemony and Revolution

  • Ruling class rely heavily on consent to maintain their rule
  • G agrees with M that they do this though control of institutions
  • As long as society accepts ruling class hegemony, no revolution will happen, even when economic conditions might seem favourable
  • But, hegemony for ruling class never complete for two reasons:
  • Ruling class are the minority! Need to create a power bloc by making alliances with other groups. Must make ideological compromise to take account of interests of allies.
  • Proletariat have a dual consciousness! Ideas influenced not only by bourgeois ideology, but also by material conditions of life – poverty and exploitation they experience. Can see through dominant ideology to some degree
  • Always possibility ruling class hegemony will be undermined
  • However, will only lead to revolution if proletariat able to construct counter-hegemonic bloc
  • In G’s view, working class can only win this battle for ideas by producing their own ‘inorganic intellectuals’ (a body of class-conscious workers, organised into revolutionary political party = create alternate vision for the future)
  • Counter-hegemony would win ideological leadership from ruling class by offering new vision


  • Over-emphasises role of ideas and under-emphasises role of state coercion and economic factors
  • Sociologists working with Marxist framework have adopted similar approach to G. Stress role of ideas and consciousness as basis for resisting domination and changing society e.g.
  • Willis (1977) working-class lads he studied ‘partially penetrating’ bourgeois ideology – seeing through school’s ideology to recognise meritocracy is a myth
  • These writers can draw from other perspectives = neo-Marxism (new Marxists)

Althusser’s Structuralist Marxism

  • Althusser = leading intellectual of French Communist Party; his version rejects both economic determinism and humanism
  • For structural Marxist, it’s not people’s actions but social structures that really shape history and these are proper subject of scientific enquiry

Criticisms of the Base-Superstructure Model

  • Marx’s base-superstructure model, society’s economic base determines superstructure of institutions, ideology’s + actions
  • Althusser rejects these models in favour of more complex one; Craib calls this “structural determinism” – In said model there are 3 structures/levels:
  • ECONOMIC LEVEL – comprising of all those activities that involve producing something in order to satisfy a need
  • POLITICAL LEVEL – comprising of all forms of organisation
  • IDEOLOGICAL LEVEL – involving ways that people see themselves and their world
  • In said model, there is one-way causality: economic levels determine everything about the other two levels
  • In contrast, A’s model, political and ideological levels have relative autonomy/partial independence from economic level
  • These levels not mere reflection of economic level + can even effect economic level = two-way causality

Ideological and repressive state apparatuses

  • In A’s model, state performs political and ideological functions that ensure reproduction of capitalism. Divides state into two ‘apparatuses’:
  • REPRESSIVE STATE APPARATUS (RSAs): ‘armed bodies of men’ e.g. army, police etc. that coerce working class into complying with bourgeoisie. How Marxist’s traditionally see state
  • IDEOLOGICAL STATE APPARATUS (ISAs): include media, education, family etc. ISAs ideologically manipulate working class into accepting capitalism as legitimate
  • Similar to Gramsci’s distinction between coercion (RSA) and consent (ISA)

Althusser’s Criticisms of Humanism

  • Sense of free will, choice + creativity = illusion for structuralist Marxist’s
  • Truth is everything about us is product of underlying social structures
  • Craib (1992) society = puppet theatre, unseen structures = puppet master
  • Althusser dismissive of humanism; they believe we can use free will, creativity etc to change society
  • A agrees we’re not free agents humanists think we are – us having free will is just example of false consciousness produced by ideological state apparatuses
  • In reality, we’re merely products of social structures that determine everything for us (similar to Parsons’ idea of status-roles)
  • In A’s view, socialism won’t come because of change in consciousness but will come about because of crisis of capitalism resulting from A’s idea of over-determination: contradictions in these three structures that occur relatively independently of each other, resulting in collapse of system as a whole

Evaluation of Althusser

  • Claims to oppose humanism and determinism. Although he rejects economic determinism simply replaces it with complex ‘structural determinism’ where all things determined by three structures
  • For sociologists like Gouldner, this ‘scientific’ approach discourages political activism because it stresses role of structural factors that individuals do little to effect
  • Thompson (1978) criticises A for ignoring that it is active struggles of working class that can change society; accuses A of elitism – belief that communist party knows what’s best for workers, should blindly follow party’s lead
  • Craib – A ‘offers most sophisticated conception of social structure available in social sciences’…but while A believed he was developing scientific analysis of society to help bring progress, his structuralist Marxism has been major influence on theories that reject idea that scientific knowledge can be used to improve society e.g. postmodernism

Quick-Check Questions

  1. A ‘class in itself’ is where a group shares the same economic position, whereas a ‘class for itself’ is where they recognise their shared interests as a class.
  2. Marxism and Functionalism are macro theories that mainly look at the structure of society and both see society as shaping individuals.
  3. Marx sees the economic base as the dominating part. 
  4. Alienation refers to the separation of workers from the ownership of the means of production and control of the work process and what they produce.
  5. Two aspects of Marxist theory that could no longer apply to modern society could include the expanding proletariat and the disappearance of the middle class.
  6. “Determinism” means that structural factors determine individuals’ actions while “voluntarism” means that individuals have an element of free will.
  7. Through the domination of ideas and values, via ruling‐class control of institutions such as education, the media, religion and the law.
  8. “Repressive state apparatus” refers to any organisations that use the threat or actual force to maintain the rule of the bourgeoisie e.g. the armed forces, the police and so on.
  9. Three classes of labourers from different historical periods include slaves, serfs and wage labourers. 
  10. The features of a Communist society, as highlighted by Marx, is a classless, stateless society where the means of production are mutually owned and things like exploitation and alienation don’t occur.