Karl Marx’s Sociological Theory

By Olivia Guy-Evans, published Oct 26, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD


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Marxism is a social, political, and economic theory proposed by Karl Marx in the 19th century, and Marxists are those who ascribe to the ideas of Marxism.

Karl Marx was a German philosopher interested in exploring the relationship between the economy and the people working within the economic system.

Marx’s theory was strongly based on the struggles of the working class during the Industrial Revolution in Europe. He explained how there are power relationships between the capitalists and the workers, which are exploitative and would eventually cause class conflict.

According to Marx, the workers are those from a low social class, which he termed the proletariat, whereas those few in charge, the wealthy bosses, owners, and managers, are what he termed the bourgeoisie.

The proletariat are the individuals who perform labor that is then taken and sold by the bourgeoisie so that they themselves receive profit while the workers receive minimal wages.

Noteworthy writings of Marxism include Capital by Marx and The Communist Manifesto written by Marx and Friedrich Engels. These writings describe the features of Marxist ideology, including the struggle of the working class, capitalism, and how a classless society is needed to end the class conflict.

Key Takeways

  • Karl Marx was a German philosopher who, in the 19th century, began exploring the relationship between the economy and the people who work within the economic system.
  • The basic idea of Marx’s theory is that society is characterized by the struggle between the workers and those in charge. The workers are those of lower social classes, which he termed the proletariat.
  • The few in charge, who are the bosses, owners, and managers of an upper social class, are what he termed the bourgeoisie. The proletariat are the individuals who perform the labor, while the bourgeoisie obtains the profits from this labor. From this system, Marx argued that the workers are exploited while those in power get more powerful and wealthier.
  • The workers are viewed as slaves of the bourgeoisie, given wages for their labor that is the minimum subsidence so that they can just about survive while also depending on their labor that they cannot simply quit (Marx & Engels, 2019).
  • The writings ‘Capital’ by Marx and ‘The Communist Manifesto’ written by Marx and Friedrich Engels are noteworthy pieces that lay out what is now referred to as Marxism.
  • These writings discuss capitalism, which is believed to eventually stagnate due to the increased struggle between the social classes.
  • Marxist ideology predicts that there will be a proletariat revolution whereby capitalism will end, to be replaced by communism.

What Are The Basic Principles Of Marx’s Theory?

Class Struggle

Marx argued that there were two social classes; the working-class laborers, known as the proletariat, and the wealthy bourgeoise, who controlled the workers.

Marx argued that there is a struggle between the social classes. While the bourgeoisie is concerned with the means of producing via the laborers, those who conduct the labor, the proletariat, want to end this exploitation. 

Marx explained that there is a constant conflict between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. While the bourgeoisie aims to make as much profit as possible by exploiting the labor of others, the proletariat is dissatisfied with this exploitation and wants to end it.

Class tensions are thought to increase with the opposing desires of those who want bigger profits and the workers who defend their right to fair pay and working conditions.

Competition in the market and the desire for bigger profits compels the bourgeoisie to further exploit their workers, who defend their rights and working conditions. These opposing desires of pushing the rate of exploitation in opposite directions create class tensions. 

Over time, there is a broader division of labor and increased use of machinery to complete the labor. Marx and Engels argued that with this came an increase in the burden of toil, whether by the work hours getting longer, an increase in the amount of work in a given time, or by the increased speed of the machinery. 

The workers are viewed as slaves of the bourgeoisie and the machine, given wages for their labor that is the minimum subsidence so they can just about survive while also depending on their labor (Marx & Engels, 2019). 

The struggle between social classes was initially confined to individual factories. However, as capitalism has matured, personal struggles have become generalized to coalitions across factories and eventually manifested at societal levels (Rummel, 1977). 

Marxists believe that the division between classes will widen with the exploitation of the workers deteriorating so severely that the social structure collapses and transforms into a proletarian revolution. A classless society will pursue erasing any exploitation or political authority (Rummel, 1977).

Theory of Capitalism

Capitalism is an economic system in which private individuals have the means of control over their own property, with the motivation to make as much profit as possible.

Marx describes capitalists as those who exploit the hard work of the laborers and pay them as little as possible to ensure the highest profits. The capitalists believe they are entitled to the profits made from their workers’ labor which Marx viewed as theft.

Marx described the capitalists as the bourgeoisie business owners who organize the means of production, such as any tools or machinery used, and are entitled to any profit made.

Marxists believe that most societies are capitalist. That such a system is accepted without the need for violence or coercion is said to reflect the fact that the capitalists have a strong influence over ideas in society (Rose, 2005).

Marx saw profit as theft since the capitalists are stealing the hard work of the laborers, selling goods and services for an enormous profit while paying the laborers as little as possible. Workers’ labor is bought and sold like any other commodity.

That such a system is accepted without the need for violence or coercion reflects the fact that the capitalists have a strong influence over ideas in society (Rosen, 2005). 

Marx viewed capitalism as an unstable system that would eventually result in a series of crises. The means of exploitation built into a capitalist economic system will be the source of social revolt and ultimately lead to capitalism's dismantling. 

Communism

Marx and Engels proposed that there would eventually be a proletariat revolution caused by continued exploitation by capitalists. The workers will revolt due to increasingly worse working conditions and wages. 

In The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels proposed that after the proletariat revolution, the means of production from the bourgeoisie would end and be replaced with collective ownership over economic assets. This is a move from capitalism to communism. 

The result of the revolution is that capitalism will be replaced by a classless society in which private property will be replaced with collective ownership. This will mean that society will become communist. With private property abolished, the means of production will come to a common agreement, what is called the communal ownership of goods. 

Communism would aim to create a classless society in which no social class would exploit the labor of the other. In a communist society, accumulated labor is but a means to widen, enrich, and promote the laborer’s existence (Marx & Engels, 2019). 

According to Marxism, the key features of communist society are that there would be no private property or inherited wealth, steeply graduated income tax, centralized control of the banking, communication, and transport industries, and free public education (Marx & Engels, 2019). 

Conflict Theory

Karl Marx is known as the developer of conflict theory. This is the idea that society is in a state of perpetual conflict because of two or more groups with competing and incompatible interests. It is the theory that power struggles and dynamics drive societal change. 

Marx concentrated on the conflict between the social classes: those of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The power the bourgeoisie hold can be found in their material resources, accumulated wealth, and social status. 

As capitalism develops, there are fewer but more powerful individuals in the upper class, which creates conflict with a majority oppressed class. The two groups are in a struggle, and resources are unjustly distributed to the few. 

Marx reasoned that as the social conditions worsened for the workers (e.g., through lower pay), they would develop a class consciousness that revealed that their exploitation was at the hands of the capitalist. The workers can make demands to ease the conflict, but conditions would eventually get worse again.

According to Marx, the only way to end the cycle of conflict is to bring about communism. 

Theory Of Alienation

Alienation means the lack of power, control and fulfilment experienced by workers in capitalist societies which the means of producing goods are privately owned and controlled.

Marx described a division of labor, meaning that the production workers increasingly feel separated from their work. Workers have moved away from an artisanal approach to work when one person works on one product.

With the increase in machinery, technological advancements, and assembly lines where many people work on one product, there is a loss of meaning to individual workers (Marx, 1992). 

As this division of labor increases along with the extent of production required for the market, the workers become more dependent on their labor for mere survival. As capitalist production becomes more technical, the workers’ productivity increases, but the final product of their labor is not for the worker to enjoy – it is the property of the capitalist (Prychitko, 2002).

In The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels suggest that under capitalism, the proletariat lose all individual character, becoming ‘an appendage of the machine’, thus, their work becomes alien (Marx & Engels, 2019). 

The proletariat loses agency over their work lives, instead, this is determined by the bourgeoisie, including when and how long to work. Thus, the workers view their labor as something alien to them. Marx describes alienated labor as forced and involuntary labor in which the worker finds no purpose, pleasure, contentment, or power. The worker feels isolated and insignificant, seeing their labor as purely for wages (Mukhopadhyay, 2020).

As the division of labor increases along with the extent of production required for the market, the workers become more dependent on their labor for mere survival. Their productivity increases as capitalist production become more technical, but as a result, the final product is not for them to enjoy, rather, it is the property of the capitalist (Prychitko, 2002).

Thus, the workers view their labor as something alien. Not only the object but the process of production is alien, for it is no longer a creative activity.

Marx describes alienated labor in his writings as forced and involuntary labor in which the worker finds no purpose, pleasure, contentment, or power. The worker feels isolated and insignificant, seeing their labor as purely for wages (Mukhopadhyay, 2020). 

Historical Materialism

Marx proposed a theory of historical materialism in which he describes stages or epochs that societies pass through. These are primitive communism, slave society, feudalism, capitalism, and advanced communism.

Marx used historical materialism to attempt to explain where society has come from, why it is the way that it is, and where it is heading.

Primitive communism was a time when society was free of social class divisions, and there were simply hunters and gathers who obtained enough food for survival. Since there was not a surplus of production, there was no exploitation. 

Slave society is thought of as the first stage of exploitation. This is when there was a division between the wealthy aristocrats and those who were slaves. This epoch gave way to more advanced productive forces, with the means of production being by the people who were the property of the slaveowners. 

Feudalism was a dominant social system in medieval Europe in which society was divided into landowners and land occupiers. It was a system in which people were given land and protection by the nobles, who had to work and fight for them in return. Essentially, in feudalism, the landowners exploited the land occupiers. 

Marx proposed that the current society is a capitalist one in which there are private property owners who exploit the labor of their workers, whom they pay as little as possible to obtain high profits. This epoch is viewed as the wealthiest in society exploiting the poorest. 

Marx’s prediction for the next epoch of society is that it will be an advanced communist one. In a communist society, there would be shared resources and wealth and no exploitation. This was Marx’s idea of a utopia in which the system benefits most people in society rather than a small minority. 

Impact of Marx’s Theory on Sociology

Karl Marx has remained a prominent and influential figure in the world of sociology. In particular, his ideas on conflict theory gave rise to other conflict theories which developed later, including race-conflict theory, gender-conflict theory, and intersectional theory. These theories provide sociologists with ways to understand power, control, freedom, and exploitation in society. 

Due to Marx’s understanding of capitalism, we have more of an understanding of how society functions and why we may have certain ideas about labor. 

In general, there are negative connotations about those who are unemployed, considering those who take too much time off as lazy and holding the belief that more belongings make people happier. Marx provided the understanding that capitalism may be the cause of why society holds these views and how it teaches us to be competitive and conformist. 

Strengths of Marxism

Marx’s ideas of society are a source of many useful insights and arguments, many of which remain relevant for modern analyses of society. While some ideas may have lost some relevance, the legacy of Marxism has endured (Burawoy & Wright, 2001). 

Many institutions are believed to use capitalist ideology still to justify inequalities. For instance, educational institutions socialize children into working hard and being obedient. 

With the increase of technological advancements in the workplace and the seemingly excessive number of products in the modern world – a lot of which would be considered non-essential- supports Marx’s ideas about capitalism. 

Marxism can help sociologists understand how past revolutions have occurred in capitalist societies. It is considered a social theory of vital importance for understanding the issues and possibilities of social change and social reproduction in modern societies. While not every element within Marxism is sustainable, Marxist ideas can be built upon to challenge and transform it (Burawoy & Wright, 2001). 

Criticisms of Marxism

Marxism can be criticized for being overly simplistic in the idea of society being split into two social classes. There are different levels of wealth in society, so it is more likely that there are several social classes. 

Likewise, Marx’s theory ignores other factors which can contribute to social inequality, such as a person’s race and religion. A person’s gender is also mostly ignored by Marxism. Feminists would suggest that gender provides a greater social division in society rather than social class. 

Marxism is argued to be a doctrine with little relevance for serious social change. It is said to be ideological for mobilizing political parties and social movements but lacks scientific credibility (Burawoy & Wright, 2001). It is thought to be unlikely that there would be total social class equality in a communist society.

Further, communist ideas have been introduced in some countries and have shown not to fare well. For instance, there was a fall of communism in the former socialist state of the USSR. Therefore, a Marxist society, while promising in theory, may not be fully sustainable unless reconstructed.

What Are The Main Goals Of Marxism?

The main goal of Marxism is to achieve a classless society that is not only adopted in one society but on a global scale. 

Marx’s idea was to design a social system that eliminates exploitation and differences in power between groups of people.

In communism, the proletariat has political power, and private property is abolished. In a communist society, private ownership will be replaced with collective ownership over economic assets.

What Is The Importance of Marxism In Society?

Karl Marx is one of the most prominent and influential figures in sociological theory. These ideas on conflict theory have given rise to different conflict theories, such as race-conflict theory, gender-conflict theory, and intersectional theory. 

Marx’s explanations of capitalism have provided a deep understanding of how society functions and enabled people to think critically about the labor they do.

Marx further offered the knowledge that capitalism may be why society holds particular views about labor, including negative judgments about those who do not work and why people are competitive and conformist. 

Is Marxism Still Relevant Today?

While some ideas of Marxism may be outdated and may not necessarily be a comprehensive theory for social change, they can still help understand some of the key social mechanisms in a society divided by class. 

Marxism offers a way to understand history and economics, as well as an explanation of the global capitalist crisis. It can be argued that exploitation is still at the heart of a capitalist system enforced by those in the upper social classes. 

Marxism also captures how capitalism develops and impacts specific world regions, specifically how some regions are developed unevenly relative to one another. Marxists would argue that unregulated commodification comes with environmental hazards, the costs of which are becoming increasingly clear (Fasenfest, 2018). 

About the Author

Olivia Guy-Evans obtained her undergraduate degree in Educational Psychology at Edge Hill University in 2015. She then received her master’s degree in Psychology of Education from the University of Bristol in 2019. Olivia has been working as a support worker for adults with learning disabilities in Bristol for the last four years.

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

This article has been fact checked by Saul Mcleod, a qualified psychology teacher with over 17 years' experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in psychology journals including Clinical Psychology, Social and Personal Relationships, and Social Psychology.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Guy-Evans, O. (2022, Oct 26). Karl Marx’s Sociological Theory. Simply Sociology. https://simplysociology.com/sociological-theories-of-karl-marx.html

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Marx, K., & Engels, F. (1967). The communist manifesto. 1848. Trans. Samuel Moore. London: Penguin, 15.

Marx, K., & Engels, F. (2019). The communist manifesto. In Ideals and Ideologies (pp. 243-255). Routledge.

Mukhopadhyay, R. (2020). Karl Marx's Theory of Alienation. Available at SSRN 3843057.

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