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Karl Marx’s critique of economic inequality and appeals for social justice inspired left-wing political parties, labor movements, and insurgencies worldwide. Post-World War II, North American theorists portrayed him as a founder of conflict theory” or critical sociology,” declaring him part of modern social theory’s founding troika (with Emile Durkheim and Max Weber). Critics countered that this canon was too narrow and Eurocentric and that communism’s collapse rendered Marx irrelevant. Others held that globalization, neoliberal deregulation, and increased economic inequality made him more relevant than ever. Marx has influenced sociological work widely, including that aimed to disprove his theories. Questions and concepts which he framed have been deployed in diverse research and theory programs.
Marx’s parents had Jewish origins, but their native Prussia’s anti-Semitism led them to convert to Protestantism. As a university student, Marx joined a group of left-wing intellectuals, who embraced Hegel’s philosophical vision of humanity making itself through labor. Marx finished his doctoral dissertation in 1841, but did not complete the second thesis required to enter German academe. His radicalism and Jewish roots precluded an academic career. Marx became a journalist and editor. His newspaper flourished, but Prussian officials shut it down in 1843 for criticizing the monarchy and state. That year Marx married Jenny von Westphalen, and left for Paris, where he learned about the industrial working class and communism.
Marx’s collaborator, Friedrich Engels provided invaluable criticism, editorial assistance, and financial support. Engels understated his role, but contributed greatly to Marx’s thought. Marx’s and Engels’ The German Ideology (1845-6) established mode of production” and class” as their core analytical categories. Their ideas about large firms, mechanized production, and globalization anticipated Marx’s later work. Expressing lucidly and succinctly Marx’s and Engels’ materialist perspective, their The Communist Manifesto (1848) held that capitalism was spreading globally, revolutionizing its productive forces, overthrowing tradition, and creating a mass of impoverished industrial workers destined to overthrow capitalism. The Manifesto was the most widely read, politically important Marxist work. In 1849 Marx moved to London, bastion of modern capitalism. He participated in working-class politics, leading the First International 1864-72. He eventually gave full attention to his theoretical work. His Capital (1867) was the first of a planned six-volume magnum opus. Although writing thousands of pages and filling numerous notebooks, he never finished the work. After his death, Engels edited and assembled two unfinished core volumes, and Karl Kautsky edited three related volumes.
Karl Marx’s Analysis of Capitalism
Marx held that the social relationship between capitalism’s ruling class and direct producers -capitalists and wage workers –is the key to grasping the system as a whole. His masterwork’s integrative labor theory of value held that a commodity’s value manifests the socially-necessary labor time” that it takes to find, mine, refine, fashion, assemble, or make it (assuming average efficiency relative to existing productive forces). Although acknowledging that supply and demand, monopoly, and other conditions cause exchange values,” or prices, to fluctuate, Marx argued that they gravitate toward an average determined by the crystallized labor time in commodities. He saw the contingent factors to be vital for success or failure of individual capitalists, but believed that variations cancel each other out and cannot explain accumulation as a whole. Most importantly, Marx held that the average worker is paid only for subsistence, or a fraction of the labor time that he or she transfers to the product; capitalists keep the unpaid portion and realize the surplus value” when they sell it. Holding that labor power” is the only commodity to produce regularly more value than it commands in exchange, he identified the unequal wage relationship as the source of profit and growth. He argued that, under capitalism, as in earlier modes of production, ruling classes appropriate direct producers’ surplus and leave them only necessities (which vary with the level of production). Like slaves and serfs, he held, wage workers do not retain their surplus product or live off that of others. By contrast to slavery or serfdom, however, Marx claimed that capitalism’s formally voluntary labor contract creates the illusion of freedom and equal exchange.
Marx held that capitalists make surplus profits when they are first to develop technical innovations that produce a commodity substantially below its socially necessary labor time (e.g., Henry Ford’s assembly line). However, he contended that, eventually, other producers adopt the same innovation and socially necessary labor time is adjusted downward. He argued that, in the long run, mechanization and automation, driven by capitalist competition, will reduce sharply the proportion of living labor” in the productive process, causing ever-increasing unemployment and falling profits. He thought that monopoly pricing, global expansion of capitalist production into low-wage countries, and other strategies would pump up profits and slow the decline, but could not avert an eventual, terminal capitalist crisis. Marx claimed that automated production, centralized productive organization, and applied science and technology, decoupled from capitalism and class would provide means to refine productive forces much more systematically, reducing their destructive impacts on people and nature, generating increased surplus, reducing unnecessary labor, and creating equitable distribution. However, Marx’s vision of this transition to communism” presumed prior spread of highly advanced, knowledge-based capitalism and automated production to the entire globe. Even Marx and Engels had doubts about this scenario.
Karl Marx’s Materialist Model
Marx saw class (people sharing a location in capitalism and similar material conditions) to be the most pervasive source of systematic social constraint. He held that class shapes typical superordinate and subordinate individuals, reproduced generation after generation. Depending on historical circumstances, he argued, classes can be fragmented aggregates, unaware of their common condition, or class conscious groups, which grasp their shared position and interests. Marx argued that the mode of production, or base, is society’s primary structuring factor; it includes productive forces (natural resources, tools, labor power, technology, science, modes of cooperation), or factors contributing directly to creation of necessary and surplus product, and propertyrelations, or class-based relationships that determine who has effective control over productive forces and disposition of product and who must do productive labor. Marx held that superstructure (modes of “intercourse” and “ideology”) helps reproduce the mode of production. For example, he saw the state’s military, police, legal, and administrative arms as perpetuating productive forces and property relations. He argued that other associations and organizations (e.g. families and voluntary groups) control, socialize, or fashion people to fit the mode of production. Marx did not claim that all organizations, associations, and cultures contribute equally to the process. For example, he knew that labor unions and political parties sometimes oppose capitalism, yet still participate in public life or operate at its borders. For Marx, ideology meant facets of culture that either play a direct role in justifying the mode of production or make an indirect, but determinate contribution (e.g., capitalist ideas of the state, economy, or culture).
Marx spoke of relations of correspondence reproducing the mode of production, and relations of contradiction, undermining it. For example, feudal laws and customs, which bound serfs to lords and journeymen to masters and forbade unrestricted sale of property, open-ended technical innovation, and market competition, corresponded to the manor’s and guild’s productive forces and property relations, but contradicted nascent capitalism. Capitalist development intensified the contradictions and generated class conflicts between the emergent bourgeoisie and opposed feudal aristocrats and guild masters. Victorious capitalists created administrative, legal, and sociocultural forms that upheld the new productive forces and class structure. Marx saw class struggle” to be the immediate motor” of such transformations, but held that new productive forces are the ultimate causal agent. Marx did not argue that all sociocultural change originates in this way. Moreover, he saw the material” realm to be social as well as natural, which made causality a complicated matter. He often praised art and literature, and did not reduce them to materialist reflux. He held that social formations bear their mode of production’s imprint, but considered their parts to be, at variable levels, relatively autonomous.
Twenty-first-century peoples still live in the wake of the world-historical transformation that Marx analyzed. His materialism provides heuristic tools, which pose penetrating sociological questions about social inequality, wealth, growth, ideology, and overall social development. Also, his social theory’s ethical thrust, stressing just distribution of the sociomaterial means of participation, challenges us to rethink socioeconomic justice after twentieth-century communism and social democracy and to entertain fresh alternatives to unrestricted economic liberalism and its sharp inequalities. Marx’s specter hangs over us.
- Marx, K. (1867) Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. The Process of Capitalist Production, ed. F. Engels. In: Collected Works, vol. 35, pp. 43-807.
- Marx, K. & Engels, F. (1845-6) The German Ideology. In: Collected Works, vol. 5, pp. 19-608.
- Marx, K & Engels, F. (1848) The Communist Manifesto. In Collected Works, vol. 6, pp. 477-519.
- McLellan, D. (1973) Karl Marx: His Life and Thought. Harper & Row, New York.