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Karl Marx: Sociological Thinkers

Karl Marx

“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle.” These are the first words in the section “Bourgeois and Proletarians” of The Communist Manifesto. Written by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels and published in 1848, The Communist Manifesto is a foundational text in establishing Marxism, which underpins the social and political philosophies of Karl Marx. Born in 1818, the German philosopher Karl Marx also wrote the seminal text Das Kapital, which focused on his economic analysis. Marx’s research examined relationships among workers, the economy, and society. Marxist philosophy’s influence spreads across several disciplines, including social and political philosophy, economics, aesthetics, literary theory, and sociology. Marxism is genuinely a multidisciplinary theory. Specific to sociology, Karl Marx’s sociological theory shaped how class and economic status are still studied today.

Historical Materialism

The term “Historical Materialism” was not directly coined by Marx; it was introduced later by Engels. Marx did, however, write about the materialistic interpretation of history, a concept that Engels and Plekhanov later elaborated on more comprehensively. According to this perspective, historical materialism posits that pivotal historical transformations stem from economic shifts within society, particularly changes in modes of production and exchange. This framework also explores subsequent alterations in social structures, including the emergence of social classes and their subsequent conflicts.

Historical materialism was the synthesis of two prominent thoughts of the 19th century:

  • Hegelian Idealism. (Thesis + Anti-thesis = synthesis) Hegel’s idealism was all about the superiority of the human spirit (Geist) and how its evolution led to change in society.
  • 18th century Materialism. Materialism, on the flip side, was at the opposite end of the spectrum and maintained that the world is made up of matter and humans are just passive recipients of the vagaries of this material nature.
    Marx synthesised these two streams of thought and said it was not the consciousness of men that determines their being (ref: idealism), rather it was their social being that determines their consciousness (ref: false class consciousness).

Using Historical Materialism

Marx rejected both the original theses of Idealism and Materialism, proposing instead that humans, as highly evolved forms of matter, engage in an active relationship with the surrounding material world. He viewed humans as creative beings who adapt their environment to fulfill their requirements through labor, a process he termed “production.” In the course of reshaping nature, individuals also undergo transformation themselves. As existing needs are met, new ones emerge, making change an inherent aspect of society. Marx drew inspiration from Hegel’s concept of change and described it as a dialectical process.

Using Historical Materialism

Modes of Production

Marx asserted that individuals, through their engagement in social production, enter into inherent and non-negotiable relationships. These production-related relationships align with specific stages in the advancement of their material productive capabilities. The collective sum of these production relations shapes the economic foundation of society, serving as the genuine groundwork upon which legal and political structures are built. These economic structures, in turn, give rise to distinct forms of societal consciousness.

These modes of production within material existence substantially influence the overall nature of social, political, and intellectual processes. However, as the material forces of production reach a certain stage of development, they clash with the existing production relations and associated property norms, which had hitherto facilitated their functioning. Consequently, what initially represented developmental forms for the productive forces can eventually become constraints, leading to a period of social revolution.

In this definition Marx talks about two things:

  • Forces of production. (FoP) Labour, skill, capital, technology and raw materials.
  • Relations of production. (RoP) Made up of the technical division of labour and the relations of control over the workplace.

Marx further says that the nature of relations of production depends on the level of development of the forces of production. Also, these FoP and RoP together make what Marx calls the economic base or modes of production in society.
Marx once famously said, the windmills gave the feudal lords, it is the steam engine that gave the capitalists.

Karl Marx

Marx referred to the economic substructure and the superstructure of society in his writings, encompassing social, political, and spiritual aspects. He posited that the superstructure was solely influenced by the economic base, emphasizing a one-way directional impact.

According to Marx, the purpose of the superstructure is to uphold and maintain the existing economic base. However, when the economic base outgrows the constraints of the superstructure, a period of conflict ensues, driven by the dialectical process of change. Ultimately, this conflict leads to a social revolution, resulting in the emergence of a new superstructure. This new superstructure is designed to preserve the transformed economic base through the establishment of new legal systems, societal norms, and religious guidelines.

Marx further contended that a revolution would only occur when the marginalized classes developed subjective awareness of the objective realities, effectively becoming a class “for itself.”

Karl Marx

In the previous feudal society, the deprived class, represented by the bourgeoisie, remained a minority and did not coalesce into a class with self-awareness. Change in this context was gradual, leading eventually to the emergence of a capitalist society. However, Marx contended that in a capitalist society, the proletariat should not passively await gradual change but actively develop subjective awareness of the prevailing conditions and instigate transformation through revolution.

Class and Class Struggle

Marx employed the concept of class to elucidate intergroup dynamics characterized by conflict and transformation. Class signifies a collective of individuals who share analogous relationships with the forces of production, consequently harboring mutual economic interests. Within any society, two fundamental classes exist: the ownership class, often associated with preserving the prevailing social order, and the non-ownership class, typically aligned with endeavors to instigate change within the societal structure. In the realm of sociology, the concept of class serves as an explanatory framework for understanding conflict and societal evolution.

Origins of Class

With the advent of better agricultural practices, surplus in production emerged. Some people appropriated the surplus to the exclusion of others. Thus emerged the two class phenomena which according the Marx has dominated all our history.

ANCIENTMaster and slaves.
FEUDALLords and serfs.
CAPITALISTBourgeoisie and proletariat.

Emergence of Class Conflict

Marx says that there exist contradictions within capitalist society which would hasten the revolution.

  • Pauperisation – Progressive immiseration of middle class and workers due to infinite greed of capitalists. Also the frequent booms and slumps often lead to recessions which cause further pauperisation of the workers. Example of covid lockdowns where the working class lost their livelihoods while capitalists benefited from the relaxed fiscal policy of the government.
  • Homogenisation – With monopolies, capitalists become homogenised and as working conditions become increasingly similar, workers also get homogenised.
  • Polarisation – Due to pauperisation of middle class, eventually the society would be polarised in two classes, bourgeoisie and proletariat with everything in between moving into either of the two classes. (Thinning of the middle class)
    Social revolution would lead to the destruction of private property, which Marx holds is the cause of class divisions in society.
  • This would mean:
    • Society collectively controls production.
    • No more profit motive. Classless society.
    • To each according to his needs, from each according to his ability.
    • Initially it would be a dictatorship of the proletariat, but eventually the state would wither away and a classless society would emerge.
    • Classless society means no nation-states, which implies no conflict.


  • Weber removed his extremes and supplemented his theory.
  • Marx: class results in economic inequalities. Income was not the criteria but RoP.
  • WeberClass based on market economy. Weber accepted division but said they only occur in market economies, in ancient and feudal societies it was status difference.
  • While Marx’s historical materialism said that change in economic structure was the only cause of change in society, Weber in his study of protestant ethic pointed out that ideas could also lead to change.
  • Charismatic leadership could also lead to change. Ex Ghandi.
  • Weber also questioned Marx’s idea of polarization. He said that the objective reality pointed to a proliferation of classes. Weber pointed out 4 classes in capitalist society:
    • Propertied upper class.
    • White-collar middle class.
    • Petit bourgeoisie.
    • Manual workers.
  • While Marx talked about polarisation and how the petty bourgeoisie will fall in the proletariat over time, Weber held that:
  • White-collar middle class would increase
  • No homogenisation as the skilled workers would not join the unskilled.
  • Marx said that in a classless society all inequality would be removed. Weber said till the time bureaucracy is present inequality of power will remain even if everyone has equal pay.
  • Bernard & Kerr put forward the embourgeoisment thesis. They said that the working class would progressively become bourgeois due to increasing technological advances.
  • Marx extrapolated the trends of his time. Didn’t account for the rise of welfare state.
  • Marx proposed a revolution by the proletariat. Lenin lead a revolution of the Bolsheviks (a minority party) and Mao led a peasant uprising (Marx always claimed that peasants would not be able to become a class for themselves as they did not experience the alienation caused by capitalism as they lived in the idiocy of rural life).
  • Ralf Dahrendorf said that Marx’s ideas only valid for 19th century. We now live in a post-capitalistic society. he said that society is  an Imperatively Coordinated Association (ICA) with a hierarchy structure. Class is any group in conflict, which leads to redistribution of authority in the ICA. Thus conflict is institutionalised in society. He gave the reasons for this as:
  • Decomposition of capital. Earlier owners were also managers. Now a separate managerial class exists. Nature of conflicts today are labour-management conflicts. Disputes are authority centered and not ownership centered.
  • Decomposition of labour. Increasing social mobility. Expansion of middle class. Emergence of welfare state. Unskilled, semi-skilled, and skilled labour.
  • Dual to the rise of the managerial middle class, Marxian class structure is no longer relevant as the middle class possesses characters of both bourgeoisie and proletariat.

AR Desai’s use of Historical Materialism

Desai explains that India was not a nation, in the European sense of the word, before the British arrived. Nationalist feeling developed because of the anti-colonial struggle. The advanced British changed the nature of the Indian economy to maximise profits, established central rule, revenue settlements, commercial farming, means of communication, etc. to facilitate the same. This resulted in the growth of new classes which were opposed to the British interests. Thus, changes in the economy became the cause of rise and development of Indian Nationalism.
NOTE: Early capitalism lead to the rise of nation-states. Neo-capitalism is now destroying the same idea due to globalisation. (Think about it, integration of economic regimes at first, followed by formation of larger communities like TPP, TTIP, RCEP, etc. and counter reactions in terms of insularity to the same).


Alienation occurs when people are dissociated from their surrounding social environment. It implies a lack of integration and increased isolation.
When man loses control over his own labour due to the relations of production in capitalist societies he becomes alienated from himself.

Marx considered alienation to be socio-psychological phenomena. Using his control over forces of production, he changes nature to gain control over it. Thus, alienation with nature declined and social alienation developed.

Marx believed that man alone was capable of labour and this was what separated him from other animals. Labour, according to Marx, is our way of expressing our humanity to others through creative expression. He gave the causes of alienation:

  • As commodities become objects of trade, the worker has no control over what he produces as profit motive guides production.
  • Earlier trade was a means to an end, now it had become an end in itself for the profit motive.
  • All decisions about organisation of production are taken by capitalist. Labour ceases to offer any intrinsic satisfaction and becomes just a means of survival.
  • Man distinguished from animals due to his ability to labour but after this objectification man loses his distinction and gets alienated from his own nature.
  • He further said that rural alienation cannot occur because rural people, due to their conformity to tradition, live in the “idiocy of rural life” and are thereby unable to become a class for itself.


  • Weber disagreed and said that alienation is caused by the formalistic rationalisation of society and predominance of formal bureaucratic type societies. He said that compulsive conformity to impersonal rules renders people as mere cogs in a giant system and destroys their human qualities.
  • C Wright Mills said that earlier skill with things were important. With the rise of the service sector, skill with people became more important. This lead to people becoming more manipulative, this lead to social life becoming a market of personality and development of false personalities by people. People practiced these false personalities so often that over time they lose touch with their real selves, thereby becoming self-alienated.
  • Melvin Seeman defined alienation in industrial society on the basis of:
    • Powerlessness.
    • Meaninglessness.
    • Isolation.
    • Self-estrangement.
  • Robert Blauner says that alienation also decreases with increasing control over work.

Marxist View of Deviance

Thus, all laws (superstructure) are in favour of the ownership class. Even national interest is in favour of ownership class.

Marxist View of Division of Labour

Marx held that DoL occurs at two levels:

Social DoLEconomic DoL
Totality of heterogeneous forms of useful labour. This is DoL in exchange and carried on independently by different producers.Primarily found in capitalist societies. Production is a result of the effort of the collective worker. The individual contributes only partially.
This is connected through exchange of commodities.No exchange between workers. Each individual is but a part of the collective worker. There is only exchange between capital (wages) and labour (produce).
Requires a wide distribution of means of production among a large number of producers.Requires concentration of the means of production in the hands of the ownership class.
Governed by chance and caprice. Free market.Despotic in nature. Sole motive is profit. For profit the bourgeois promote specialisation even though it stunts and distorts human abilities.

For Marx abolition of division of labour meant abolition of private property.

Read Also: Research Methods & Analysis

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