Marxism is a political, cultural, and economic philosophy that theorizes that social conflict exists due to constant power struggles between capitalists and workers.
Examples of marxism that demonstrate its powerful ability to critique capitalism include: the evidence of continual social inequality, cyclical economic crises that Marx predicted, and the predominance of monopolies in capitalism (that Marx also predicted).
Although heavily (and, for many reasons, rightly) criticized, Marxism remains one of the most influential sociological paradigms. That’s because it touches upon many aspects of social life: economics, politics, and culture.
Marxism Key Concepts
1. The Bourgeoisie versus the Proletariat
The founder of Marxism, Carl Marx, saw capitalist society as clearly divided into two classes. Each of them has a different relationship to private property.
|The bourgeois (wealthy)||They own capital. This includes resources like land, means of production (factories), materials, and money.|
|The proletariat (workers)||They don’t own capital. They sell their labor power to the Bourgeoisie.|
Marx argued that the Bourgeois exploit the labor offered by the workers to make profit. This is their main source of income.
2. Surplus value
Marx understood goods’ value in terms of the amount of labor required to produce it.
But the money paid to the worker by the employer is less than the total value of goods produced by the worker. Surplus value is the difference between the two.
According to Marx, the bourgeoisie extracts surplus value from the worker. Profit is essentially the exploitation of workers in capitalist society.
3. Controlling the Economic Base means controlling the Superstructure
We saw that the bourgeoisie has complete control over the means of production and the economy. Those with economic power, according to Marx, control all social institutions. The term “superstructure” describes structures like education, family, religion, government etc.
To an important extent, this was true during Marx’s time (the mid-19th century):
- voting was restricted to men with property
- press barons used their papers to spread propaganda
- only the children of the wealthy could attend university.
4. Capitalism leads to alienation
The capitalist system makes the worker feel alien to/estranged from:
- the production process
- his co-workers
- the final products produced.
That’s because workers lose control of their work and become a ‘machine’.
5. The Bourgeois Holds Ideological Control
The Bourgeois use their economic power in society to keep the masses unaware of their exploitation (ideological control). They can do it because they control the superstructure, e.g., religion, education, and mass media.
Ideological control leads to False Consciousness. This means that individuals are not conscious (do not understand) of their class position and are being exploited by the bourgeoisie (the ruling class).
6. Inevitability of Communist Revolution
Marx assumed that a revolution would happen and capitalism would be eliminated when the proletariat recognized its social position.
The workers would then take down the bourgeoisie. They would establish an egalitarian society in which there would be no incentive to profit or exploit others. There would be no private property; the means of production would be collectively owned.
This society would take from “each would give according to their ability” and give “to each according to their needs’, as Marx famously wrote in 1875.
Examples of Marxist Theory
1. Capitalism and the creation of false needs
Marx warned us early on of capitalism’s ability to create false needs among people of all ages.
In 1844, he wrote: “The extension of products and needs becomes a contriving and ever-calculating subservience to inhuman, sophisticated, unnatural and imaginary appetites.”
This is reflective of the consumer culture that emerged in the twentieth century and is very prominent today.
Commercial advertising—first on the press, then TV/radio, and now targeted ads on digital media—makes us feel we need more goods even when we have almost everything.
Consider cell phones, for example, they become outdated in just a few months. People want to buy the latest model even if theirs is still perfectly functional.
2. Cyclical systemic financial crises
Marx recognized early on that economic crises were an inherent feature of the capitalist system. (This was what would lead to revolution).
The economic history of the twentieth century has been marked by a shift between
- periods of tranquillity with economic development and prospering financial markets
- and periods of financial crises, coupled with the collapse of asset prices, rises in interest rates, bankruptcies among nation states and business firms
Take, for example,
- the stock market crash of 1929 (known as the Great Crash)
- the subsequent Great Depression (1929–1939)
- the 2007-2008 financial crisis, felt as a mortgage crisis in the US and a banking crisis in many European countries (e.g., Iceland, Ireland etc.)
3. The class divides
According to Marx, the bourgeoisie keep salaries low to maximize profits. This is only possible as long as another worker willingly replaces the one who refuses to accept the conditions.
An example of this in today’s world is the move of large manufacturing companies from Europe and the United States to Asian and African countries in the twentieth century. They relocated to low-cost labor countries to maximize profit and maintain high growth rates.
Research has also shown that workers’ pay has frozen in many countries, while top executives make even more (Fryer, 2007).
Many European countries face the so-called cost-of-living crisis. The prices of essential goods have been rising faster than household incomes. While many people struggle to make ends meet, the super-rich are making even more profit.
4. The predominance of monopolies
This trend is paired with the formation of international monopolies.
Traditional liberal economic theory believed that competition would keep ownership diverse. But Marx rightly claimed that capitalist markets tend to merge according to the law of the strongest.
Some of the most famous monopolies in the world exemplify Marx’s process. These include Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, Google, and Meta (formerly known as Facebook).
Marxism vs Communism
|A political, social, and economic philosophy based on Karl Marx’s thinking||An system of economic production and a form of government|
|A philosophical and sociological perspective that laid the groundwork for the theory and practice of communism||A practical application of Marx’s ideas (which has not been implemented yet)|
|A theory focusing on the struggles between the working class and the capitalists.||A classless system in which all property and wealth are communal (there is no private property).|
|A theory advocating that society is progressing towards communism (in which all individuals are equal)||A system in which people are considered equal and treated equally|
Note that when speaking of Marxism, we refer to a social and philosophical theory. When speaking of communism, we refer to a social, political, and economic regime.
Many countries are considered to have established communism in the twentieth century. An example is the Eastern European bloc and the Soviet Union, which were under communist leadership until the 1990s.
But these communist regimes—although ideologically founded upon Marxist ideas—were far from what Marx envisioned for society. So Marxism and Communism should not be confused.
Criticisms of Marxism
Marxism has been heavily criticized not only by liberal sociologists, economists, and political theorists. Let’s look at the key criticisms.
1. Control of the economic base does not involve control of the superstructure
Many of our institutions today are relatively independent of bourgeois or political control. For example, many written and online press is critical of the economic elites. The same goes for artists who criticize financial exploitation in capitalist societies.
In many western countries, there is a sizeable middle class that generates enough income to own property and even invest their surplus income. These could not be identified as Marx’s “capitalist class”. They’re a form of petit-capitalists.
3. Capitalism hasn’t declined
As we saw, Marx believed that greater competition would lead to capitalist bankruptcy and the emergence of monopolies (as fewer and fewer people controlled production).
Former capitalists who had gone bankrupt would join the proletariat. This would ultimately lead to capitalism’s downfall and a harmonious socialist society.
However, capitalism hasn’t been overturned by the workers’ revolution.
Markets and the capitalist system have evolved over time. Wages have increased, and people now have access to a wide range of goods and private property. In many capitalist societies, however, economic inequality has increased.
4. Worker’s alienation is less relevant today
Modern structures of production (e.g., companies) have changed and have much less alienation.
First, workers can voice their opinions more easily through unions and progressive management techniques. Second, many self-employed people can work and live on their own terms.
Third, when writing about alienation, Marx had in mind factory workers who were contributing to a tiny part of the product (e.g., drilling a hole and fitting a screw) and therefore felt foreign to the final products of their labor (e.g., a car).
In today’s service-oriented economy, professionals (e.g., teachers, digital marketer, developer, pharmacists) have a better feeling about what they produce.
5. Traditional Marxism was a grand narrative
Contemporary scholars argue that Marx’s grand or macro-narrative about the way the world works (and is destined to work) is no longer relevant.
Rather than trying to explain large-scale phenomena, they claim, that theorists should focus on much more specific and localized social issues (Lafferty, 2016).
6. Marxism is too deterministic
We saw that Marx thought that economic laws determined the workings of society and the direction of history. But there are many factors that shape history.
Societies have reacted differently to the global capitalist spread. For example
- The United States and Europe have embraced neo-liberalism.
- Cuba has a socialist dictatorship.
- China also has a totalitarian regime. It is governed by the Chinese Communist Party which bears no resemblance to communism as envisioned by Marx.
Karl Marx developed the social, political, and economic theory known as Marxism. A conflict theory used in macrosociology, Marxism focuses on the struggles between the ‘bourgeoisie’ (ruling capitalist class) and the ‘proletariat’ (working class).
Marx argued that the power dynamics between capitalists and workers were inherently exploitative, resulting in class conflict. This conflict would eventually result in a global workers’ revolution that would overthrow the capitalist class and lead to a socialist society.
More than 150 years on, Marxism still informs sociological analyses and has been one of the most influential and controversial theoretical paradigms.
Eagleton, T. (2011). Why Marx was right. New Haven [Conn.]: Yale University Press.
Fryer, J. (2007). Rich man, poor man. The Economist. Available at: https://www.economist.com/leaders/2007/01/18/rich-man-poor-man.
Lafferty, G. (2016). From grand narrative to pluralist alternatives: New perspectives on Marx and Marxism. Australian Journal of Political Science, 51(3), pp. 583-597.
Marx, K. (1969). Theories of surplus value. 3 Volumes. Translated Emile Burns. London: Lawrence & Wishart.
Marx, K., & Engels, F. ([1867-1894]1976). Capital: A critique of political economy. 3 Volumes. London: Lawrence & Wishart.
Radke, M. (2005). Explaining financial crises: A cyclical approach. Frankfurt, Germany: Peter Lang.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.