Sociology Index

Karl Marx

A political revolutionary, social theorist and among distinguished sociologists, Karl Marx was born and educated in Germany. Marx's major works of sociological importance are: The German Ideology, with F. Engels; The Poverty of Philosophy; Manifesto of the Comnunist Party, with F. Engels; The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte; Capital; and two manuscripts published after his death, The Economic and Philosophic Manuscnpts of 1844 and Grundrisse.

Karl Marx has been a major influence on the development of sociology, as often a subject of criticism as of inspiration. There arc five important sociological areas covered by his writings. In his early work Marx was interested in the concept of alienation. One of the senses that he gave to the term was that of alienated labour, in which condition man had work imposed on him by others, a theme that was to run through all his subsequent contributions.

Karl Marx thought that human labour was the basis of social activity, he also held that social institutions, like the state or the family, were relatively independent of the economy in their development and even had an influence on the operation of the economy. Marx's views on this question are best summed up in the theory of base and superstructure.

Karl Marx was primarily interested in the analysis of societies organized into social class. The basis of social classes lay in the social relations of production in the economy. Those who own and control the means of production, and are able to take the product, form one class and those depending on their own labour alone the other. The form of the relations of production will vary from society to society, producing different class relations. For Marx, the basic model of such societies is of a two-class structure. He argued, however, that in all real societies the picture will be more complicated, with several classes, particularly those left over from earlier stages of society. Marx's analysis of social class as applied to contemporary capitalist societies has attracted a great deal of criticism, because of the difficulties in fitting the middle class into his scheme and of identifying a class of persons who own and control the means of production when ownership of capital passes increasingly to institutions such as pension funds.

The contradiction, at the heart of class societies also suggests a theory of social change. Marx argues that class struggle is the 'motor of history'; the rising capitalist class overthrew the feudal aristocracy and will be similarly displaced by the working class. In capitalist societies Marx suggests that, other things being equal, the society will become polarized with the working class becoming poorer and poorer. It should be clear that change does not follow automatically from changes in the economic structure; class struggle as the active intervention of human beings is necessary. Historical change takes the form of a succession of societies dominated by mode of production, feudalism or capitalism, each of which represents greater technological control over nature.

Capital, spells out the economic mechanisms of capitalist society, developing the labour theory of value, the theory of capital accumulation, and the possibilities of capitalism's internal collapse.