Karl Marx’s Sociology and Conflict Theory Essay (Critical Writing)

The relevance of marx’s ideas on contemporary capitalist societies, the notion of “social exploitation”, works cited.

Karl Marx’s contribution to sociology is indisputably great, as he is considered one of the most influential theorists in the sphere of sociology. He is well-known for criticizing Capitalism and the political, economic, and social consequences that it can bring. He vividly describes his vision and provides the advantages of Communism in his works, predominantly in “The Manifesto of the Communist Party” and “Capital” (Crossman). Also, he introduced such concepts as false consciousness, base and superstructure, and historical materialism, which are cited in numerous works of other researchers.

According to Marx’s conflict theory, when power and resources are unequally distributed in the society, the conflicts occur between different groups of people, some of them demanding for social changes and equality, while others resist, as they do not want to lose the power and capital. Marx’s conflict theory focuses on the reasons for the occurrence of social conflicts and their consequences (Crossman). In this theory, there are two opposing parties, namely, bourgeois (or the upper class consisting of capitalists) and the proletariat (or the working class consisting of poor people).

The appearance of Capitalism in Europe gave Marx the idea that this system would not last long because of the large chasm between the rich and the poor. He theorized that the feeling of social injustice would give the stimulus to the working class to demand changes and that the feeling of reluctance to share power in the upper class would force them to resist (Carter 113). Thus, in Marx’s opinion, Capitalism causes the alienation of the masses and the constantly growing indignation of the proletariat for being exploited by the bourgeois.

In terms of Marx’s philosophy, he created the so-called dialectical materialism based on Hegel’s dialectics, which is dialectical idealism. Marx thought that the main focus of dialectics should not be placed on the ideal world but the material world. Marx’s dialectical materialism maintains the material aspect of the ever-changing reality of economic activity and production. His theory became the philosophical basis of Communism.

Thus, according to Marx, Capitalism will eventually cause a revolution, which will result in either suppression of the proletariat by the bourgeois or its victory. In the first scenario, the revolution will inevitably repeat until the bourgeois is defeated (Carter 154). In the second scenario, the social system will change, and Capitalism will be ousted by Communism, where everybody will take according to their needs and give according to their abilities.

Despite the changes that have occurred in capitalist societies since Marx’s times, his theory is still relevant today. The reason for this is that in most countries, there is still a big chasm between the rich and the poor. Although in developed countries, people have managed to find a compromise, there are still people who are unhappy with the situation they are in.

As for Communism, certainly, after such major failures with its implementation in the 20 th century, which caused many wars and resulted in many human casualties, people either despise it or are skeptical about its successful realization (Sunkara). However, certain countries have managed to adopt Socialism, the milder version of Communism, and are now thriving.

The notion of “social exploitation” is one of the central concepts in the conflict theory in sociology. The reason for this is that it is, in fact, one of the main causes of the conflict between the proletariat and bourgeois. Marx thought that social exploitation is inevitable in the capitalist society; therefore, the conflict between the rich and the poor is also unavoidable (Carter 46). Thus, the main focus of Marx’s sociology is to find a solution to this conflict in the form of Communism where everybody will be happy.

Carter, Bob. Capitalism, Class Conflict, and the New Middle Class (RLE Social Theory) . Routledge, 2014.

Crossman, Ashley. “Understanding Conflict Theory.” ThoughtC . 2017, eb.

Sunkara, Bhaskar. “Why the Ideas of Karl Marx Are More Relevant Than Ever in the 21 st Century?” The Guardian . 2013, Web.

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Module 5: Society and Groups

Conflict theory and society, learning outcomes.

  • Describe the conflict theory view of society
  • Explain Karl Marx’s concepts of class and alienation

Karl Marx and Conflict Theory

Karl Marx is certainly among the most significant social thinkers in recent history. While there are many critics of his work, it is still widely respected and influential. For Marx, society’s constructions were predicated upon the idea of “base and superstructure.” This term refers to the idea that a society’s economic character forms its base, upon which rests the cultural and social institutions, the superstructure. For Marx, it is the base (economy) that determines what a society will be like.

A triangle diagram with the lower half of the triangle labeled economy considered the base, and government, family, religion, education, and culture considered the superstructure on the top half of the triangle.

Figure 1. Karl Marx asserted that all elements of a society’s structure depend on its economic structure.

Additionally, Marx saw conflict in society as the primary means of change. Economically, he saw conflict existing between the owners of the means of production—the bourgeoisie —and the laborers, called the proletariat .

Marx maintained that these conflicts appeared consistently throughout history during times of social revolution. These revolutions, or “class antagonisms” as he called them, were a result of one class dominating another. Most recently, with the end of feudalism, a new revolutionary class he called the bourgeoisie dominated the laboring masses that he called the proletariat. The bourgeoisie were revolutionary in the sense that they represented a radical change in the structure of society. In Marx’s words, “Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other—Bourgeoisie and Proletariat” (Marx and Engels 1848).

In the mid-nineteenth century, as industrialization was booming, bourgeois industrial employers, the “owners of the means of production” in Marx’s terms, became more and more exploitative toward the working class proletariat. The large manufacturers of steel were particularly ruthless, and their facilities were popularly dubbed “dark satanic mills” based on a poem by William Blake. Marx’s frequent co-author and friend, Friedrich Engels, wrote The Condition of the Working-Class in England  (1844), which described the horrid conditions.

Such is the Old Town of Manchester, and on re-reading my description, I am forced to admit that instead of being exaggerated, it is far from black enough to convey a true impression of the filth, ruin, and uninhabitableness, the defiance of all considerations of cleanliness, ventilation, and health which characterise the construction of this single district, containing at least twenty to thirty thousand inhabitants. And such a district exists in the heart of the second city of England, the first manufacturing city of the world.

Add to that the long hours, the use of child labor, and exposure to extreme temperatures and toxic chemicals, and it is no wonder that Marx and Engels referred to capitalism, which is a way of organizing an economy so that the things that are used to make and transport products (such as land, oil, factories, ships, etc.) are owned by profit-seeking individuals and companies rather than by the government, as the “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.”

Black and white portraits are shown side by side. Portrait (a) is of Karl Marx, and Portrait (b) is of Friedrich Engels.

Figure 2. Karl Marx (left) and Friedrich Engels (right) analyzed differences in social power between “have” and “have-not” groups. (Photo (a) courtesy of Wikimedia Commons; Photo (b) courtesy of George Lester/Wikimedia Commons)

For Marx, how we labor defines who we are. Historically, and in spite of the persistent efforts of one class to dominate another, Marx argued that some element of common humanity still existed in pre-industrial, smaller-scale modes of productions such as guild communities and workshops. In these workplaces, there was at least some connection between the worker and the product, whose creation was partially governed by seasonal cycles and by the the rise and fall of the sun, just as in earlier agricultural societies. But with the bourgeois revolution and the rise of industrialization and capitalism, the worker now labored for wages alone. His relationship to his labor was no longer of a human nature, but was instead based on artificial, inorganic conditions.

Marx described modern society in terms of alienation. Alienation refers to the condition in which the individual is isolated and divorced from his or her society, work, or sense of self. Marx defined four specific types of alienation.

  • Alienation from the product of one’s labor. An industrial worker does not have the opportunity to relate to the product he labors on. Instead of training for years as a watchmaker, an unskilled worker can get a job at a watch factory pressing buttons to seal watch pieces together. The worker does not care if he is making watches or cars, simply that the job exists. In the same way, a worker may not even know or care what product to which he is contributing. A worker on a Ford assembly line may spend all day installing windows on car doors without ever seeing the rest of the car.
  • Alienation from the process of one’s labor. A worker does not control the conditions of her job because she does not own the means of production (i.e., the factory and its tools and raw materials). If a person is hired to work in a fast food restaurant, she is expected to make the food the way she is taught. All ingredients must be combined in a particular order and in a particular quantity; there is no room for creativity or change. An employee at Burger King cannot decide to change the spices used on the fries in the same way that an employee on a Ford assembly line cannot decide to place a car’s headlights in a different position. Everything is decided by the factory-owning bourgeoisie who then dictate orders to the laborers.
  • Alienation from others. Workers compete, rather than cooperate. Employees vie for time slots, bonuses, and job security. Even when a worker clocks out at night and goes home, the competition does not end. As Marx and Engels described this dynamic in The Communist Manifesto (1848), “No sooner is the exploitation of the laborer by the manufacturer, so far at an end, that he receives his wages in cash, than he is set upon by the other portion of the bourgeoisie, the landlord, the shopkeeper, the pawnbroker.”
  • Alienation from one’s self. A final outcome of industrialization is a loss of connectivity between a worker and her occupation. Because there is nothing that ties a worker to her labor, there is no longer a sense of self. Instead of being able to take pride in an identity such as being a watchmaker, automobile builder, or chef, a person is simply a cog in the machine.

A man is shown using a machine to install car parts on an assembly line.

Figure 3 . An assembly line worker installs car parts with the aid of complex machinery. Has technology made this type of labor more or less alienating? (Photo courtesy of Carol Highsmith/Wikimedia Commons)

Taken as a whole, then, alienation in modern society means that an individual has no control over his life. But why, then, does the modern working class not rise up and rebel? (Indeed, Marx predicted that this would be the ultimate outcome and would result in the collapse of capitalism.)

Another idea that Marx developed is the concept of false consciousness . False consciousness is a condition in which the beliefs, ideals, or ideology of a person are not in the person’s own best interest. In fact, it is the ideology of the dominant class (here, the bourgeois capitalists) that is imposed upon the proletariat. Ideas such as the emphasis of competition over cooperation, or of hard work being its own reward, clearly benefit the owners of the means of production. Therefore, workers are less likely to question their place in society or to assume individual responsibility for existing conditions.

In order for society to overcome false consciousness, Marx proposed that it be replaced with class consciousness , the awareness of one’s rank in society. He thought it was crucial that workers recognize their real relationship to, and political distance from, the means of production. Instead of existing as a “class in itself,” the proletariat must become a “class for itself” in order to effect social change, meaning that instead of just being an inert stratum of society, the class could advocate for social improvements (Marx and Engels 1848). Only once society entered this state of political consciousness would it be ready for a social revolution.

Review Marx’s ideas about alienation and the four types of alienation in the following video.

Further Research

One of the most influential pieces of political writing in modern history was Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ The Communist Manifesto (1848). Visit “Manifesto of the Communist Party” on Marxists.org  to read the original document that spurred revolutions around the world.

Think It Over

  • Think of the ways workers are alienated from the product and process of their jobs. How can these concepts be applied to students and their educations?
  • Use Marx’s argument to explain a current social event such as the Occupy movement. Does his theory hold up under modern scrutiny?


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Understanding Conflict Theory

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Conflict theory states that tensions and conflicts arise when resources, status, and power are unevenly distributed between groups in society and that these conflicts become the engine for social change. In this context, power can be understood as control of material resources and accumulated wealth, control of politics and the institutions that make up society, and one's social status relative to others (determined not just by class but by race, gender, sexuality, culture , and religion, among other things).

"A house may be large or small; as long as the neighboring houses are likewise small, it satisfies all social requirement for a residence. But let there arise next to the little house a palace, and the little house shrinks to a hut." Wage Labour and Capital (1847)

Marx's Conflict Theory

Conflict theory originated in the work of Karl Marx , who focused on the causes and consequences of class conflict between the bourgeoisie (the owners of the means of production and the capitalists) and the proletariat (the working class and the poor). Focusing on the economic, social, and political implications of the rise of capitalism in Europe , Marx theorized that this system, premised on the existence of a powerful minority class (the bourgeoisie) and an oppressed majority class (the proletariat), created class conflict because the interests of the two were at odds, and resources were unjustly distributed among them.

Within this system an unequal social order was maintained through ideological coercion which created consensus--and acceptance of the values, expectations, and conditions as determined by the bourgeoisie. Marx theorized that the work of producing consensus was done in the "superstructure" of society, which is composed of social institutions, political structures, and culture, and what it produced consensus for was the "base," the economic relations of production. 

Marx reasoned that as the socio-economic conditions worsened for the proletariat, they would develop a class consciousness that revealed their exploitation at the hands of the wealthy capitalist class of bourgeoisie, and then they would revolt, demanding changes to smooth the conflict. According to Marx, if the changes made to appease conflict maintained a capitalist system, then the cycle of conflict would repeat. However, if the changes made created a new system, like socialism , then peace and stability would be achieved.

Evolution of Conflict Theory

Many social theorists have built on Marx's conflict theory to bolster it, grow it, and refine it over the years. Explaining why Marx's theory of revolution did not manifest in his lifetime, Italian scholar and activist  Antonio Gramsci  argued that the power of ideology was stronger than Marx had realized and that more work needed to be done to overcome cultural hegemony, or  rule through common sense . Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, critical theorists who were part of The Frankfurt School , focused their work on how the rise of mass culture--mass produced art, music, and media--contributed to the maintenance of cultural hegemony. More recently, C. Wright Mills drew on conflict theory to describe the rise of a tiny "power elite" composed of military, economic, and political figures who have ruled America from the mid-twentieth century.

Many others have drawn on conflict theory to develop other types of theory within the social sciences, including feminist theory , critical race theory , postmodern and postcolonial theory, queer theory, post-structural theory, and theories of globalization and world systems . So, while initially conflict theory described class conflicts specifically, it has lent itself over the years to studies of how other kinds of conflicts, like those premised on race, gender, sexuality, religion, culture, and nationality, among others, are a part of contemporary social structures, and how they affect our lives.

Applying Conflict Theory

Conflict theory and its variants are used by many sociologists today to study a wide range of social problems. Examples include:

  • How today's global capitalism creates a global system of power and inequality.
  • How words play a role in reproducing and justifying conflict.
  • The causes and consequences of the gender pay gap between men and women.

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Karl Marx and Conflict Theory: An Introduction

Karl marx and conflict theory.

Conflict theory in sociology is the creation of Karl Marx. Indeed, Marxism and conflict theory are sometimes discussed as though the two were synonymous. There can also be no better example than Marxism of the close connection between a theorist’s ideas and the events of the “real world”; for it is in the name of Marx’s ideas that revolutionaries around the world attack existing forms of society and that organized Communist parties have ruled a large part of mankind.

Karl Marx was born in 1818 in Trier, Germany. His parents were Jews who had converted to Protestantism to avoid discrimination and loss of civil rights, and in particular, to protect his father’s law practice. Marx also began to study law. However, at the University of Berlin he became fascinated by the philosophy of Hegel, who interpreted the whole of history as the process by which “Spirit” (and consequently humanity) progressed toward complete self-knowledge and a “rational” and “free” society. Marx became a Young Hegelian, one of a group of young philosophers who questioned many parts of the master’s teachings while remaining beholden to his approach. Indeed, in later years, Marx came to see his own writing as upending Hegel’s, replacing Hegel’s emphasis on mind as the crucial determinant of history with his own “materialist” philosophy, which demonstrated that material factors determined events. He also became an antireligious radical, and after completing his thesis he worked as a writer and publicist in Paris and Belgium. During this period he wrote The Communist Manifesto, which sets out a program for a revolutionary government and outlines his theory of social structures and social change. When the revolution of 1848 broke out in Germany, he returned to edit a radical newspaper.

After the revolution failed, he went into exile again and settled in London, his home for the rest of his life. During much of this period, Marx and his family were extremely poor; help from his friend Friedrich Engels, a socialist textile manufacturer, was vital. Nonetheless, his theories became increasingly well-known and influential, especially outside England. He was consulted more and more frequently by Russian and German radicals and revolutionaries, and since his death, Communist parties have developed all over the world. Their dogma consists of the analyses of Marx and of Lenin, who led the first successful Communist revolution.

Marxist sociologists form a school whose analyses take place within the framework Marx created. In this sense, therefore, Marxism is an entirely contemporary theory. The basic elements of conflict theory are all apparent in Marx’s work. He believed, first of all, that people have an essential nature and predefined interests. Indeed, Marxists generally argue that if people do not behave in accordance with these interests it can only mean that they have been deceived about what their “true interests” are by a social system that works in others’ favor. Second, Marx analyzed both historical and contemporary society in terms of conflicts between different social groups with different interests. Finally, he emphasized the link between the nature of ideas or “ideologies” and the interests of those who develop them, and he insisted that the ideas of an age reflect the interests of the “ruling class.”

Marx emphasized the primacy of technology and of patterns of property ownership in determining the nature of people’s lives and course of social conflict. Whereas Marxist and, to a lesser degree, other “critical” conflict theorists retain this emphasis, other analysts from Weber on have seen it as an important, but only partial, explanation. Marx’s work is also distinguished by its claim to predict the future and its belief in the possibility of a perfect, conflict-free, communist society. Such beliefs are accepted partly or in full by the more “critical” theorists, while being rejected by the analytic conflict theorists who draw on Weber. The divide between the two approaches thus derives from the central differences between Marx and Weber themselves.

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1.3C: The Conflict Perspective

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Conflict theory sees society as a dynamic entity constantly undergoing change as a result of competition over scarce resources.

Learning Objectives

  • Identify the tenets of and contributors to conflict theory, as well as the criticisms made against it
  • Conflict theory sees social life as a competition, and focuses on the distribution of resources, power, and inequality.
  • Unlike functionalist theory, conflict theory is better at explaining social change, and weaker at explaining social stability.
  • Conflict theory has been critiqued for its inability to explain social stability and incremental change.
  • Conflict theory derives from the ideas of Karl Marx.
  • conflict theory : A social science perspective that holds that stratification is dysfunctional and harmful in society, with inequality perpetuated because it benefits the rich and powerful at the expense of the poor.
  • functionalism : Structural functionalism, or simply functionalism, is a framework for building theory that sees society as a complex system whose parts work together to promote solidarity and stability.

The Conflict Perspective

The conflict perspective, or conflict theory, derives from the ideas of Karl Marx, who believed society is a dynamic entity constantly undergoing change driven by class conflict. Whereas functionalism understands society as a complex system striving for equilibrium, the conflict perspective views social life as competition. According to the conflict perspective, society is made up of individuals competing for limited resources (e.g., money, leisure, sexual partners, etc.). Competition over scarce resources is at the heart of all social relationships. Competition, rather than consensus, is characteristic of human relationships. Broader social structures and organizations (e.g., religions, government, etc.) reflect the competition for resources and the inherent inequality competition entails; some people and organizations have more resources (i.e., power and influence), and use those resources to maintain their positions of power in society.

C. Wright Mills is known as the founder of modern conflict theory. In his work, he believes social structures are created because of conflict between differing interests. People are then impacted by the creation of social structures, and the usual result is a differential of power between the ” elite ” and the “others”. Examples of the “elite” would be government and large corporations. G. William Domhoff believes in a similar philosophy as Mills and has written about the “power elite of America”.

Sociologists who work from the conflict perspective study the distribution of resources, power, and inequality. When studying a social institution or phenomenon, they ask, “Who benefits from this element of society? ”

Conflict Theory and Change

While functionalism emphasizes stability, conflict theory emphasizes change. According to the conflict perspective, society is constantly in conflict over resources, and that conflict drives social change. For example, conflict theorists might explain the civil rights movements of the 1960s by studying how activists challenged the racially unequal distribution of political power and economic resources. As in this example, conflict theorists generally see social change as abrupt, even revolutionary, rather than incremental. In the conflict perspective, change comes about through conflict between competing interests, not consensus or adaptation. Conflict theory, therefore, gives sociologists a framework for explaining social change, thereby addressing one of the problems with the functionalist perspective.

Criticism of Conflict Theory

Predictably, conflict theory has been criticized for its focus on change and neglect of social stability. Some critics acknowledge that societies are in a constant state of change, but point out that much of the change is minor or incremental, not revolutionary. For example, many modern capitalist states have avoided a communist revolution, and have instead instituted elaborate social service programs. Although conflict theorists often focus on social change, they have, in fact, also developed a theory to explain social stability. According to the conflict perspective, inequalities in power and reward are built into all social structures. Individuals and groups who benefit from any particular structure strive to see it maintained. For example, the wealthy may fight to maintain their privileged access to higher education by opposing measures that would broaden access, such as affirmative action or public funding.

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Karl Marx (1818–1883) is often treated as a revolutionary, an activist rather than a philosopher, whose works inspired the foundation of many communist regimes in the twentieth century. It is certainly hard to find many thinkers who can be said to have had comparable influence in the creation of the modern world. However, Marx was trained as a philosopher, and although often portrayed as moving away from philosophy in his mid-twenties—perhaps towards history and the social sciences—there are many points of contact with modern philosophical debates throughout his writings.

The themes picked out here include Marx’s philosophical anthropology, his theory of history, his economic analysis, his critical engagement with contemporary capitalist society (raising issues about morality, ideology, and politics), and his prediction of a communist future.

Marx’s early writings are dominated by an understanding of alienation, a distinct type of social ill whose diagnosis looks to rest on a controversial account of human nature and its flourishing. He subsequently developed an influential theory of history—often called historical materialism—centred around the idea that forms of society rise and fall as they further and then impede the development of human productive power. Marx increasingly became preoccupied with an attempt to understand the contemporary capitalist mode of production, as driven by a remorseless pursuit of profit, whose origins are found in the extraction of surplus value from the exploited proletariat. The precise role of morality and moral criticism in Marx’s critique of contemporary capitalist society is much discussed, and there is no settled scholarly consensus on these issues. His understanding of morality may be related to his account of ideology, and his reflection on the extent to which certain widely-shared misunderstandings might help explain the stability of class-divided societies. In the context of his radical journalism, Marx also developed his controversial account of the character and role of the modern state, and more generally of the relation between political and economic life. Marx sees the historical process as proceeding through a series of modes of production, characterised by (more or less explicit) class struggle, and driving humankind towards communism. However, Marx is famously reluctant to say much about the detailed arrangements of the communist alternative that he sought to bring into being, arguing that it would arise through historical processes, and was not the realisation of a pre-determined plan or blueprint.

1.1 Early Years

1.3 brussels, 2.1 the basic idea, 2.2 religion and work, 2.3 alienation and capitalism, 2.4 political emancipation, 2.5 remaining questions, 3.1 sources, 3.2 early formulations, 3.3 1859 preface, 3.4 functional explanation, 3.5 rationality, 3.6 alternative interpretations, 4.1 reading capital, 4.2 labour theory of value, 4.3 exploitation, 5.1 unpacking issues, 5.2 the “injustice” of capitalism, 5.3 communism and “justice”, 6.1 a critical account, 6.2 ideology and stability, 6.3 characteristics, 7.1 the state in capitalist society, 7.2. the fate of the state in communist society, 8.1 utopian socialism, 8.2 marx’s utopophobia, 9. marx’s legacy, primary literature, secondary literature, other internet resources, related entries, 1. life and writings.

Karl Marx was born in 1818, one of nine children. The family lived in the Rhineland region of Prussia, previously under French rule. Both of his parents came from Jewish families with distinguished rabbinical lineages. Marx’s father was a lawyer who converted to Christianity when it became necessary for him to do so if he was to continue his legal career.

Following an unexceptional school career, Marx studied law and philosophy at the universities of Bonn and Berlin. His doctoral thesis was in ancient philosophy, comparing the philosophies of nature of Democritus (c.460–370 BCE) and Epicurus (341–270 BCE). From early 1842, he embarked on a career as a radical journalist, contributing to, and then editing, the Rheinische Zeitung , until the paper was closed by the Prussian authorities in April 1843.

Marx married Jenny von Westphalen (1814–1881), his childhood sweetheart, in June 1843. They would spend their lives together and have seven children, of whom just three daughters—Jenny (1844–1883), Laura (1845–1911), and Eleanor (1855–1898)—survived to adulthood. Marx is also widely thought to have fathered a child—Frederick Demuth (1851–1929)—with Helene Demuth (1820–1890), housekeeper and friend of the Marx family.

Marx’s adult life combined independent scholarship, political activity, and financial insecurity, in fluctuating proportions. Political conditions were such, that, in order to associate and write as he wished, he had to live outside of Germany for most of this time. Marx spent three successive periods of exile in the capital cities of France, Belgium, and England.

Between late 1843 and early 1845, Marx lived in Paris, a cosmopolitan city full of émigrés and radical artisans. He was subsequently expelled by the French government following Prussian pressure. In his last months in Germany and during this Paris exile, Marx produced a series of “early writings”, many not intended for publication, which significantly altered interpretations of his thought when they were published collectively in the twentieth century. Papers that actually saw publication during this period include: “On the Jewish Question” (1843) in which Marx defends Jewish Emancipation against Bruno Bauer (1809–1882), but also emphasises the limitations of “political” as against “human” emancipation; and the “Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction” (1844) which contains a critical account of religion, together with some prescient remarks about the emancipatory potential of the proletariat. The most significant works that Marx wrote for self-clarification rather than publication in his Paris years are the so-called “1844 Manuscripts” (1844) which provide a suggestive account of alienation, especially of alienation in work; and the “Theses on Feuerbach” (1845), a set of epigrammatic but rich remarks including reflections on the nature of philosophy.

Between early 1845 and early 1848, Marx lived in Brussels, the capital of a rapidly industrialising Belgium. A condition of his residency was to refrain from publishing on contemporary politics, and he was eventually expelled after political demonstrations involving foreign nationals took place. In Brussels Marx published The Holy Family (1845), which includes contributions from his new friend and close collaborator Friedrich Engels (1820–1895), continuing the attack on Bruno Bauer and his followers. Marx also worked, with Engels, on a series of manuscripts now usually known as The German Ideology (1845–46), a substantial section of which criticises the work of Max Stirner (1806–1856). Marx also wrote and published The Poverty of Philosophy (1847) which disparages the social theory of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809–1865). All these publications characteristically show Marx developing and promoting his own views through fierce critical attacks on contemporaries, often better-known and more established than himself.

Marx was politically active throughout his adult life, although the events of 1848—during which time he returned to Paris and Cologne—inspired the first of two periods of especially intense activity. Two important texts here are The Communist Manifesto (1848) which Marx and Engels published just before the February Revolution, and, following his move to London, The Class Struggles in France (1850) in which Marx examined the subsequent failure of 1848 in France. Between these two dates, Marx commented on, and intervened in, the revolution in Germany through the Neue Rheinische Zeitung (1848–49), the paper he helped to establish and edit in Cologne.

For well over half of his adult life—from late 1849 until his death in 1883—Marx lived in London, a city providing a secure haven for political exiles and a superb vantage point from which to study the world’s most advanced capitalist economy. This third and longest exile was dominated by an intellectual and personal struggle to complete his critique of political economy, but his theoretical output extended far beyond that project.

Marx’s initial attempt to make sense of Napoleon III’s rise to power in contemporary France is contained in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852). Between 1852 and 1862 Marx also wrote well over three hundred articles for the New York Daily Tribune ; sometimes unfairly disparaged as merely income-generating journalism, they frequently contain illuminating attempts to explain contemporary European society and politics (including European interventions in India and China) to an American audience (helpfully) presumed to know little about them.

The second of Marx’s two especially intense periods of political activity—after the revolutions of 1848—centred on his involvement in the International Working Men’s Association between 1864 and 1874, and the events of the Paris Commune (1871), in particular. The character and lessons of the Commune—the short-lived, and violently suppressed, municipal rebellion that controlled Paris for several months in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian war—are discussed in The Civil War in France (1871). Also politically important was Marx’s “Critique of the Gotha Programme” (1875), in which he criticises the theoretical influence of Ferdinand Lassalle (1825–1864) on the German labour movement, and portrays the higher stage of a future communist society as endorsing distribution according to “the needs principle”.

Marx’s critique of political economy remains controversial. He never succeeded in fixing and realising the wider project that he envisaged. Volume One of Capital , published in 1867, was the only significant part of the project published in his own lifetime, and even here he was unable to resist heavily reworking subsequent editions (especially the French version of 1872–75). What we now know as Volume Two and Volume Three of Capital were put together from Marx’s raw materials by Engels and published in 1885 and 1894, respectively, and Marx’s own drafts were written before the publication of Volume One and barely touched by him in the remaining fifteen years of his life. An additional three supplementary volumes planned by Engels, and subsequently called Theories of Surplus Value (or, more colloquially, the “fourth volume of Capital ”) were assembled from remaining notes by Karl Kautsky (1854–1938), and published between 1905 and 1910. (The section of the “new MEGA”—see below—concerned with Capital -related texts contains fifteen thick volumes, and provides some sense of the extent and character of these later editorial interventions.) In addition, the publication in 1953—a previous two-volume edition (1939 and 1941) had only a highly restricted circulation—of the so-called Grundrisse (written in 1857–58) was also important. Whether this text is treated as a freestanding work or as a preparatory step towards Capital, it raises many questions about Marx’s method, his relation to G.W.F. Hegel (1770–1831), and the evolution of Marx’s thought. In contrast, the work of political economy that Marx did publish in this period— A Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy (1859)—was largely ignored by both contemporaries and later commentators, except for the, much reprinted and discussed, summary sketch of his theory of history that Marx offered in the so-called “1859 Preface” to that volume.

Marx’s later years (after the Paris Commune) are the subject of much interpretative disagreement. His inability to deliver the later volumes of Capital is often seen as emblematic of a wider and more systematic intellectual failure (Stedman Jones 2016). However, others have stressed Marx’s continued intellectual creativity in this period, as he variously rethought his views about: the core and periphery of the international economic system; the scope of his theory of history; social anthropology; and the economic and political evolution of Russia (Shanin 1983; K. Anderson 2010).

After the death of his wife, in 1881, Marx’s life was dominated by illness, and travel aimed at improving his health (convalescent destinations including the Isle of Wight, Karlsbad, Jersey, and Algiers). Marx died in March 1883, two months after the death of his eldest daughter. His estate was valued at £250.

Engels’s wider role in the evolution of, and, more especially the reception and interpretation of, Marx’s work is much disputed. The truth here is complex, and Engels is not always well-treated in the literature. Marx and Engels are sometimes portrayed as if they were a single entity, of one mind on all matters, whose individual views on any topic can be found simply by consulting the other. Others present Engels as the distorter and manipulator of Marx’s thought, responsible for any element of Marxian theory with which the relevant commentator might disagree. Despite their familiarity, neither caricature seems plausible or fair. The best-known jointly authored texts are The Holy Family , the “German Ideology” manuscripts, and The Communist Manifesto , but there are nearly two hundred shorter items that they both contributed to (Draper 1985: 2–19).

Many of Marx’s best-known writings remained unpublished before his death. The attempt to establish a reliable collected edition has proved lengthy and fraught. The authoritative Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe , the so-called “new MEGA” (1975–), is still a work in progress, begun under Soviet auspices but since 1990 under the guidance of the “International Marx-Engels Stiftung” (IMES). In its current form—much scaled-down from its original ambitions—the edition will contain some 114 volumes (well over a half of which are published at the time of writing). In addition to his various published and unpublished works, it includes Marx’s journalism, correspondence, drafts, and (some) notebooks. Texts are published in their original language (variously German, English, and French). For those needing to utilise English-language resources, the fifty volume Marx Engels Collected Works (1975–2004) can be recommended. (References to Marx and Engels quotations here are to these MECW volumes.) There are also several useful single volume selections of Marx and Engels writings in English (including Marx 2000).

2. Alienation and Human Flourishing

Alienation is a concept especially, but not uniquely, associated with Marx’s work, and the intellectual tradition that he helped found. It identifies a distinct kind of social ill, involving a separation between a subject and an object that properly belong together. The subject here is typically an individual or a group, while the object is usually an “entity” which variously is not itself a subject, is another subject(s), or is the original subject (that is, the relation here can be reflexive). And the relation between the relevant subject and object is one of problematic separation. Both elements of that characterisation are important. Not all social ills, of course, involve separations; for instance, being overly integrated into some object might be dysfunctional, but it is not characteristic of alienation. Moreover, not all separations are problematic, and accounts of alienation typically appeal to some baseline unity or harmony that is frustrated or violated by the separation in question.

Theories of alienation vary considerably, but frequently: first, identify a subset of these problematic separations as being of particular importance; second, include an account (sometimes implicit) of what makes the relevant separations problematic; and, third, propound some explanatory claims about the extent of, and prognosis for, alienation, so understood.

Marx’s ideas concerning alienation were greatly influenced by the critical writings on religion of Ludwig Feuerbach (1804–1872), and especially his The Essence of Christianity (1841). One key text in this respect is Marx’s “Contribution of Hegel’s Critique of Right: Introduction” (1843). This work is home to Marx’s notorious remark that religion is the “opium of the people,” a harmful, illusion-generating painkiller ( MECW 3: 175). It is here that Marx sets out his account of religion in most detail.

While traditional Christian theology asserts that God created man in God’s own image, Marx fully accepted Feuerbach’s inversion of this picture, proposing that human beings had invented God in their own image; indeed a view that long pre-dated Feuerbach. Feuerbach’s distinctive contribution was to argue that worshipping God diverted human beings from enjoying their own human powers. In their imagination humans raise their own powers to an infinite level and project them on to an abstract object. Hence religion is a form of alienation, for it separates human beings from their “species essence.” Marx accepted much of Feuerbach’s account but argues that Feuerbach failed to understand why people fall into religious alienation, and so is unable to explain how it can be transcended. Feuerbach’s view appears to be that belief in religion is purely an intellectual error and can be corrected by persuasion. Marx’s explanation is that religion is a response to alienation in material life, and therefore cannot be removed until human material life is emancipated, at which point religion will wither away.

Precisely what it is about material life that creates religion is not set out with complete clarity. However, it seems that at least two aspects of alienation are responsible. One is alienated labour, which will be explored shortly. A second is the need for human beings to assert their communal essence. Whether or not we explicitly recognise it, human beings exist as a community, and what makes human life possible is our mutual dependence on the vast network of social and economic relations which engulf us all, even though this is rarely acknowledged in our day-to-day life. Marx’s view appears to be that we must, somehow or other, acknowledge our communal existence in our institutions. At first it is “deviously acknowledged” by religion, which creates a false idea of a community in which we are all equal in the eyes of God. After the post-Reformation fragmentation of religion, where religion is no longer able to play the role even of a fake community of equals, the modern state fills this need by offering us the illusion of a community of citizens, all equal in the eyes of the law. Interestingly, the political or liberal state, which is needed to manage the politics of religious diversity, takes on the role offered by religion in earlier times of providing a form of illusory community. But the political state and religion will both be transcended when a genuine community of social and economic equals is created.

Although Marx was greatly inspired by thinking about religious alienation, much more of his attention was devoted to exploring alienation in work. In a much-discussed passage from the 1844 Manuscripts , Marx identifies four dimensions of alienated labour in contemporary capitalist society ( MECW 3: 270–282). First, immediate producers are separated from the product of their labour; they create a product that they neither own nor control, indeed, which comes to dominate them. (Note that this idea of “fetishism”—where human creations escape our control, achieve the appearance of independence, and come to oppress us—is not to be equated with alienation as such, but is rather one form that it can take.) Second, immediate producers are separated from their productive activity; in particular, they are forced to work in ways which are mentally and/or physically debilitating. Third, immediate producers are separated from other individuals; contemporary economic relations socialise individuals to view others as merely means to their own particular ends. Fourth, and finally, immediate producers are separated from their own human nature; for instance, the human capacities for community and for free, conscious, and creative, work, are both frustrated by contemporary capitalist relations.

Note that these claims about alienation are distinct from other, perhaps more familiar, complaints about work in capitalist society. For instance, alienated labour, as understood here, could be—even if it is often not—highly remunerated, limited in duration, and relatively secure.

Marx holds that work has the potential to be something creative and fulfilling. He consequently rejects the view of work as a necessary evil, denying that the negative character of work is part of our fate, a universal fact about the human condition that no amount of social change could remedy. Indeed, productive activity, on Marx’s account, is a central element in what it is to be a human being, and self-realisation through work is a vital component of human flourishing. That he thinks that work—in a different form of society—could be creative and fulfilling, perhaps explains the intensity and scale of Marx’s condemnation of contemporary economic arrangements and their transformation of workers into deformed and “dehumanised” beings ( MECW 3: 284).

It was suggested above that alienation consists of dysfunctional separations—separations between entities that properly belong together—and that theories of alienation typically presuppose some baseline condition whose frustration or violation by the relevant separation identifies the latter as dysfunctional. For Marx, that baseline seems to be provided by an account of human flourishing, which he conceptualises in terms of self-realisation (understood here as the development and deployment of our essential human capacities). Labour in capitalism, we can say, is alienated because it embodies separations preventing the self-realisation of producers; because it is organised in a way that frustrates the human need for free, conscious, and creative work.

So understood, and returning to the four separations said to characterise alienated labour, we can see that it is the implicit claim about human nature (the fourth separation) which identifies the other three separations as dysfunctional. If one subscribed to the same formal model of alienation and self-realisation, but held a different account of the substance of human nature, very different claims about work in capitalist society might result. Imagine a theorist who held that human beings were solitary, egoistic creatures, by nature. That theorist could accept that work in capitalist society encouraged isolation and selfishness, but deny that such results were alienating, because those results would not frustrate their baseline account of what it is to be a human being (indeed, they would rather facilitate those characteristics).

Marx seems to hold various views about the historical location and comparative extent of alienation. These include: that some systematic forms of alienation—presumably including religious alienation—existed in pre-capitalist societies; that systematic forms of alienation—including alienation in work—are only a feature of class divided societies; that systematic forms of alienation are greater in contemporary capitalist societies than in pre-capitalist societies; and that not all human societies are scarred by class division, in particular, that a future classless society (communism) will not contain systematic forms of alienation.

Marx maintains that alienation flows from capitalist social relations, and not from the kind of technological advances that capitalist society contains. His disapproval of capitalism is reserved for its social arrangements and not its material accomplishments. He had little time for what is sometimes called the “romantic critique of capitalism”, which sees industry and technology as the real villains, responsible for devastating the purportedly communitarian idyll of pre-capitalist relations. In contrast, Marx celebrates the bourgeoisie’s destruction of feudal relations, and sees technological growth and human liberation as (at least, in time) progressing hand-in-hand. Industry and technology are understood as part of the solution to, and not the source of, social problems.

There are many opportunities for scepticism here. In the present context, many struggle to see how the kind of large-scale industrial production that would presumably characterise communist society—communism purportedly being more productive than capitalism—would avoid alienation in work. Interesting responses to such concerns have been put forward, but they have typically come from commentators rather than from Marx himself (Kandiyali 2018). This is a point at which Marx’s self-denying ordinance concerning the detailed description of communist society prevents him from engaging directly with significant concerns about the direction of social change.

In the text “On The Jewish Question” (1843) Marx begins to make clear the distance between himself and his radical liberal colleagues among the Young Hegelians; in particular Bruno Bauer. Bauer had recently written against Jewish emancipation, from an atheist perspective, arguing that the religion of both Jews and Christians was a barrier to emancipation. In responding to Bauer, Marx makes one of the most enduring arguments from his early writings, by means of introducing a distinction between political emancipation—essentially the grant of liberal rights and liberties—and human emancipation. Marx’s reply to Bauer is that political emancipation is perfectly compatible with the continued existence of religion, as the contemporary example of the United States demonstrates. However, pushing matters deeper, in an argument reinvented by innumerable critics of liberalism, Marx argues that not only is political emancipation insufficient to bring about human emancipation, it is in some sense also a barrier. Liberal rights and ideas of justice are premised on the idea that each of us needs protection from other human beings who are a threat to our liberty and security. Therefore, liberal rights are rights of separation, designed to protect us from such perceived threats. Freedom on such a view, is freedom from interference. What this view overlooks is the possibility—for Marx, the fact—that real freedom is to be found positively in our relations with other people. It is to be found in human community, not in isolation. Accordingly, insisting on a regime of liberal rights encourages us to view each other in ways that undermine the possibility of the real freedom we may find in human emancipation. Now we should be clear that Marx does not oppose political emancipation, for he sees that liberalism is a great improvement on the systems of feudalism and religious prejudice and discrimination which existed in the Germany of his day. Nevertheless, such politically emancipated liberalism must be transcended on the route to genuine human emancipation. Unfortunately, Marx never tells us what human emancipation is, although it is clear that it is closely related to the ideas of non-alienated labour and meaningful community.

Even with these elaborations, many additional questions remain about Marx’s account. Three concerns are briefly addressed here.

First, one might worry about the place of alienation in the evolution of Marx’s thought. The once-popular suggestion that Marx only wrote about alienation in his early writings—his published and unpublished works from the early 1840s—is not sustained by the textual evidence. However, the theoretical role that the concept of alienation plays in his writings might still be said to evolve. For example, it has been suggested that alienation in the early writings is intended to play an “explanatory role”, whereas in his later work it comes to have a more “descriptive or diagnostic” function (Wood 1981 [2004: 7]).

A second concern is the role of human nature in the interpretation of alienation offered here. In one exegetical variant of this worry, the suggestion is that this account of alienation rests on a model of universal human nature which Marx’s (later) understanding of historical specificity and change prevents him from endorsing. However, there is much evidence against this purported later rejection of human nature (see Geras 1983). Indeed, the “mature” Marx explicitly affirms that human nature has both constant and mutable elements; that human beings are characterised by universal qualities, constant across history and culture, and variable qualities, reflecting historical and cultural diversity (McMurtry 1978: 19–53). One systematic, rather than exegetical, variant of the present worry suggests that we should not endorse accounts of alienation which depend on “thick” and inevitably controversial accounts of human nature (Jaeggi 2016). Whatever view we take of that claim about our endorsement, there seems little doubt about the “thickness” of Marx’s own account of human flourishing. To provide for the latter, a society must satisfy not only basic needs (for sustenance, warmth and shelter, certain climatic conditions, physical exercise, basic hygiene, procreation and sexual activity), but also less basic needs, both those that are not always appreciated to be part of his account (for recreation, culture, intellectual stimulation, artistic expression, emotional satisfaction, and aesthetic pleasure), and those that Marx is more often associated with (for fulfilling work and meaningful community) (Leopold 2007: 227–245).

Third, we may ask about Marx’s attitude towards the distinction sometimes made between subjective and objective alienation. These two forms of alienation can be exemplified separately or conjointly in the lives of particular individuals or societies (Hardimon 1994: 119–122). Alienation is “subjective” when it is characterised in terms of the presence (or absence) of certain beliefs or feelings; for example, when individuals are said to be alienated because they feel estranged from the world. Alienation is “objective” when it is characterised in terms which make no reference to the beliefs or feelings of individuals; for example, when individuals are said to be alienated because they fail to develop and deploy their essential human characteristics, whether or not they experience that lack of self-realisation as a loss. Marx seems to allow that these two forms of alienation are conceptually distinct, but assumes that in capitalist societies they are typically found together. Indeed, he often appears to think of subjective alienation as tracking the objective variant. That said, Marx does allow that they can come apart sociologically. At least, that is one way of reading a passage in The Holy Family where he recognises that capitalists do not get to engage in self-realising activities of the right kind (and hence are objectively alienated), but that—unlike the proletariat—they are content in their estrangement (and hence are lacking subjective alienation), feeling “at ease” in, and even “strengthened” by, it ( MECW 4: 36).

3. Theory of History

Marx did not set out his theory of history in great detail. Accordingly, it has to be constructed from a variety of texts, both those where he attempts to apply a theoretical analysis to past and future historical events, and those of a more purely theoretical nature. Of the latter, the “1859 Preface” to A Critique of Political Economy has achieved canonical status. However, the manuscripts collected together as The German Ideology , co-written with Engels in 1845-46, are also a much used early source. We shall briefly outline both texts, and then look at the reconstruction of Marx’s theory of history in the hands of his philosophically most influential recent exponent, G.A. Cohen (Cohen 1978 [2001], 1988), who builds on the interpretation of the early Russian Marxist Georgi Plekhanov (1856–1918) (Plekhanov 1895 [1947]).

We should, however, be aware that Cohen’s interpretation is far from universally accepted. Cohen provided his reconstruction of Marx partly because he was frustrated with existing Hegelian-inspired “dialectical” interpretations of Marx, and what he considered to be the vagueness of the influential works of Louis Althusser (1918–1990), neither of which, he felt, provided a rigorous account of Marx’s views. However, some scholars believe that the interpretation that we shall focus on is faulty precisely for its insistence on a mechanical model and its lack of attention to the dialectic. One aspect of this criticism is that Cohen’s understanding has a surprisingly small role for the concept of class struggle, which is often felt to be central to Marx’s theory of history. Cohen’s explanation for this is that the “1859 Preface”, on which his interpretation is based, does not give a prominent role to class struggle, and indeed it is not explicitly mentioned. Yet this reasoning is problematic for it is possible that Marx did not want to write in a manner that would engage the concerns of the police censor, and, indeed, a reader aware of the context may be able to detect an implicit reference to class struggle through the inclusion of such phrases as “then begins an era of social revolution,” and “the ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out”. Hence it does not follow that Marx himself thought that the concept of class struggle was relatively unimportant. Furthermore, when A Critique of Political Economy was replaced by Capital , Marx made no attempt to keep the 1859 Preface in print, and its content is reproduced just as a very much abridged footnote in Capital . Nevertheless, we shall concentrate here on Cohen’s interpretation as no other account has been set out with comparable rigour, precision and detail.

In his “ Theses on Feuerbach ” (1845) Marx provides a background to what would become his theory of history by stating his objections to “all hitherto existing” materialism and idealism, understood as types of philosophical theories. Materialism is complimented for understanding the physical reality of the world, but is criticised for ignoring the active role of the human subject in creating the world we perceive. Idealism, at least as developed by Hegel, understands the active nature of the human subject, but confines it to thought or contemplation: the world is created through the categories we impose upon it. Marx combines the insights of both traditions to propose a view in which human beings do indeed create —or at least transform—the world they find themselves in, but this transformation happens not in thought but through actual material activity; not through the imposition of sublime concepts but through the sweat of their brow, with picks and shovels. This historical version of materialism, which, according to Marx, transcends and thus rejects all existing philosophical thought, is the foundation of Marx’s later theory of history. As Marx puts it in the “1844 Manuscripts”, “Industry is the actual historical relationship of nature … to man” ( MECW 3: 303). This thought, derived from reflection on the history of philosophy, together with his experience of social and economic realities, as a journalist, sets the agenda for all Marx’s future work.

In The German Ideology manuscripts, Marx and Engels contrast their new materialist method with the idealism that had characterised previous German thought. Accordingly, they take pains to set out the “premises of the materialist method”. They start, they say, from “real human beings”, emphasising that human beings are essentially productive, in that they must produce their means of subsistence in order to satisfy their material needs. The satisfaction of needs engenders new needs of both a material and social kind, and forms of society arise corresponding to the state of development of human productive forces. Material life determines, or at least “conditions” social life, and so the primary direction of social explanation is from material production to social forms, and thence to forms of consciousness. As the material means of production develop, “modes of co-operation” or economic structures rise and fall, and eventually communism will become a real possibility once the plight of the workers and their awareness of an alternative motivates them sufficiently to become revolutionaries.

In the sketch of The German Ideology , many of the key elements of historical materialism are present, even if the terminology is not yet that of Marx’s more mature writings. Marx’s statement in the “1859 Preface” renders something of the same view in sharper form. Cohen’s reconstruction of Marx’s view in the Preface begins from what Cohen calls the Development Thesis, which is pre-supposed, rather than explicitly stated in the Preface (Cohen 1978 [2001]: 134–174). This is the thesis that the productive forces tend to develop, in the sense of becoming more powerful, over time. The productive forces are the means of production, together with productively applicable knowledge: technology, in other words. The development thesis states not that the productive forces always do develop, but that there is a tendency for them to do so. The next thesis is the primacy thesis, which has two aspects. The first states that the nature of a society’s economic structure is explained by the level of development of its productive forces, and the second that the nature of the superstructure—the political and legal institutions of society—is explained by the nature of the economic structure. The nature of a society’s ideology, which is to say certain religious, artistic, moral and philosophical beliefs contained within society, is also explained in terms of its economic structure, although this receives less emphasis in Cohen’s interpretation. Indeed, many activities may well combine aspects of both the superstructure and ideology: a religion is constituted by both institutions and a set of beliefs.

Revolution and epoch change is understood as the consequence of an economic structure no longer being able to continue to develop the forces of production. At this point the development of the productive forces is said to be fettered, and, according to the theory, once an economic structure fetters development it will be revolutionised—“burst asunder” ( MECW 6: 489)—and eventually replaced with an economic structure better suited to preside over the continued development of the forces of production.

In outline, then, the theory has a pleasing simplicity and power. It seems plausible that human productive power develops over time, and plausible too that economic structures exist for as long as they develop the productive forces, but will be replaced when they are no longer capable of doing this. Yet severe problems emerge when we attempt to put more flesh on these bones.

Prior to Cohen’s work, historical materialism had not been regarded as a coherent view within English-language political philosophy. The antipathy is well summed up with the closing words of H.B. Acton’s The Illusion of the Epoch : “Marxism is a philosophical farrago” (1955: 271). One difficulty taken particularly seriously by Cohen is an alleged inconsistency between the explanatory primacy of the forces of production, and certain claims made elsewhere by Marx which appear to give the economic structure primacy in explaining the development of the productive forces. For example, in The Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels state that: “The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production” ( MECW 6: 487). This appears to give causal and explanatory primacy to the economic structure—capitalism—which brings about the development of the forces of production. Cohen accepts that, on the surface at least, this generates a contradiction. Both the economic structure and the development of the productive forces seem to have explanatory priority over each other. Unsatisfied by such vague resolutions as “determination in the last instance”, or the idea of “dialectical” connections, Cohen self-consciously attempts to apply the standards of clarity and rigour of analytic philosophy to provide a reconstructed version of historical materialism.

The key theoretical innovation is to appeal to the notion of functional explanation, also sometimes called “consequence explanation” (Cohen 1978 [2001]: 249–296). The essential move is cheerfully to admit that the economic structure, such as capitalism, does indeed develop the productive forces, but to add that this, according to the theory, is precisely why we have capitalism (when we do). That is, if capitalism failed to develop the productive forces it would disappear. And, indeed, this fits beautifully with historical materialism. For Marx asserts that when an economic structure fails to develop the productive forces—when it “fetters” the productive forces—it will be revolutionised and the epoch will change. So the idea of “fettering” becomes the counterpart to the theory of functional explanation. Essentially fettering is what happens when the economic structure becomes dysfunctional.

Now it is apparent that this renders historical materialism consistent. Yet there is a question as to whether it is at too high a price. For we must ask whether functional explanation is a coherent methodological device. The problem is that we can ask what it is that makes it the case that an economic structure will only persist for as long as it develops the productive forces. Jon Elster has pressed this criticism against Cohen very hard (Elster 1985: 27–35). If we were to argue that there is an agent guiding history who has the purpose that the productive forces should be developed as much as possible then it would make sense that such an agent would intervene in history to carry out this purpose by selecting the economic structures which do the best job. However, it is clear that Marx makes no such metaphysical assumptions. Elster is very critical—sometimes of Marx, sometimes of Cohen—of the idea of appealing to “purposes” in history without those being the purposes of anyone.

Indeed Elster’s criticism was anticipated in fascinating terms by Simone Weil (1909–1943), who links Marx’s appeal to history’s purposes to the influence of Hegel on his thought:

We must remember the Hegelian origins of Marxist thought. Hegel believed in a hidden mind at work in the universe, and that the history of the world is simply the history of this world mind, which, as in the case of everything spiritual, tends indefinitely towards perfection. Marx claimed to “put back on its feet” the Hegelian dialectic, which he accused of being “upside down”, by substituting matter for mind as the motive power of history; but by an extraordinary paradox, he conceived history, starting from this rectification, as though he attributed to matter what is the very essence of mind—an unceasing aspiration towards the best. (Weil 1955 [1958: 43])

Cohen is well aware of the difficulty of appealing to purposes in history, but defends the use of functional explanation by comparing its use in historical materialism with its use in evolutionary biology. In contemporary biology it is commonplace to explain the existence of the stripes of a tiger, or the hollow bones of a bird, by pointing to the function of these features. Here we have apparent purposes which are not the purposes of anyone. The obvious counter, however, is that in evolutionary biology we can provide a causal story to underpin these functional explanations; a story involving chance variation and survival of the fittest. Therefore these functional explanations are sustained by a complex causal feedback loop in which dysfunctional elements tend to be filtered out in competition with better functioning elements. Cohen calls such background accounts “elaborations” and he concedes that functional explanations are in need of elaborations. But he points out that standard causal explanations are equally in need of elaborations. We might, for example, be satisfied with the explanation that the vase broke because it was dropped on the floor, but a great deal of further information is needed to explain why this explanation works.

Consequently, Cohen claims that we can be justified in offering a functional explanation even when we are in ignorance of its elaboration. Indeed, even in biology detailed causal elaborations of functional explanations have been available only relatively recently. Prior to Charles Darwin (1809–1882), or arguably Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744–1829), the only candidate causal elaboration was to appeal to God’s purposes. Darwin outlined a very plausible mechanism, but having no genetic theory was not able to elaborate it into a detailed account. Our knowledge remains incomplete in some respects to this day. Nevertheless, it seems perfectly reasonable to say that birds have hollow bones in order to facilitate flight. Cohen’s point is that the weight of evidence that organisms are adapted to their environment would permit even a pre-Darwinian atheist to assert this functional explanation with justification. Hence one can be justified in offering a functional explanation even in the absence of a candidate elaboration: if there is sufficient weight of inductive evidence.

At this point the issue, then, divides into a theoretical question and an empirical one. The empirical question is whether or not there is evidence that forms of society exist only for as long as they advance productive power, and are replaced by revolution when they fail. Here, one must admit, the empirical record is patchy at best, and there appear to have been long periods of stagnation, even regression, when dysfunctional economic structures were not revolutionised.

The theoretical issue is whether a plausible elaborating explanation is available to underpin Marxist functional explanations. Here there is something of a dilemma. In the first instance it is tempting to try to mimic the elaboration given in the Darwinian story, and appeal to chance variations and survival of the fittest. In this case “fittest” would mean “most able to preside over the development of the productive forces”. Chance variation would be a matter of people trying out new types of economic relations. On this account new economic structures begin through experiment, but thrive and persist through their success in developing the productive forces. However the problem is that such an account would seem to introduce a larger element of contingency than Marx seeks, for it is essential to Marx’s thought that one should be able to predict the eventual arrival of communism. Within Darwinian theory there is no warrant for long-term predictions, for everything depends on the contingencies of particular situations. A similar heavy element of contingency would be inherited by a form of historical materialism developed by analogy with evolutionary biology. The dilemma, then, is that the best model for developing the theory makes predictions based on the theory unsound, yet the whole point of the theory is predictive. Hence one must either look for an alternative means of producing elaborating explanation, or give up the predictive ambitions of the theory.

The driving force of history, in Cohen’s reconstruction of Marx, is the development of the productive forces, the most important of which is technology. But what is it that drives such development? Ultimately, in Cohen’s account, it is human rationality. Human beings have the ingenuity to apply themselves to develop means to address the scarcity they find. This on the face of it seems very reasonable. Yet there are difficulties. As Cohen himself acknowledges, societies do not always do what would be rational for an individual to do. Co-ordination problems may stand in our way, and there may be structural barriers. Furthermore, it is relatively rare for those who introduce new technologies to be motivated by the need to address scarcity. Rather, under capitalism, the profit motive is the key. Of course it might be argued that this is the social form that the material need to address scarcity takes under capitalism. But still one may raise the question whether the need to address scarcity always has the influence that it appears to have taken on in modern times. For example, a ruling class’s absolute determination to hold on to power may have led to economically stagnant societies. Alternatively, it might be thought that a society may put religion or the protection of traditional ways of life ahead of economic needs. This goes to the heart of Marx’s theory that man is an essentially productive being and that the locus of interaction with the world is industry. As Cohen himself later argued in essays such as “Reconsidering Historical Materialism” (1988), the emphasis on production may appear one-sided, and ignore other powerful elements in human nature. Such a criticism chimes with a criticism from the previous section; that the historical record may not, in fact, display the tendency to growth in the productive forces assumed by the theory.

Many defenders of Marx will argue that the problems stated are problems for Cohen’s interpretation of Marx, rather than for Marx himself. It is possible to argue, for example, that Marx did not have a general theory of history, but rather was a social scientist observing and encouraging the transformation of capitalism into communism as a singular event. And it is certainly true that when Marx analyses a particular historical episode, as he does in the 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon (1852), any idea of fitting events into a fixed pattern of history seems very far from Marx’s mind. On other views Marx did have a general theory of history but it is far more flexible and less determinate than Cohen insists (Miller 1984). And finally, as noted, there are critics who believe that Cohen’s interpretation is entirely wrong-headed owing to its dismissive attitude to dialectical reasoning (Sayers 1984 [1990]).

4. Economics

How to read Marx’s economic writings, and especially his masterpiece Capital Volume 1, remains a matter of controversy. An orthodox reading is that Marx’s essential task is to contribute to economic theory, based on a modified form of the labour theory of value. Others warn against such a narrow interpretation, pointing out that the character of Marx’s writing and presentation is very far from what one would expect in a standard economic text. Hence William Clare Roberts (2017), for example, argues that Capital Volume 1 is fundamentally a work of political theory, rather than economics. Be that as it may, nevertheless, the work does contain substantial presentation of an economic analysis of capitalism, and it is on this that we will focus here.

Capital Volume 1 begins with an analysis of the idea of commodity production. A commodity is defined as a useful external object, produced for exchange on a market. Thus, two necessary conditions for commodity production are: the existence of a market, in which exchange can take place; and a social division of labour, in which different people produce different products, without which there would be no motivation for exchange. Marx suggests that commodities have both use-value—a use, in other words—and an exchange-value—initially to be understood as their price. Use value can easily be understood, so Marx says, but he insists that exchange value is a puzzling phenomenon, and relative exchange values need to be explained. Why does a quantity of one commodity exchange for a given quantity of another commodity? His explanation is in terms of the labour input required to produce the commodity, or rather, the socially necessary labour, which is labour exerted at the average level of intensity and productivity for that branch of activity within the economy. Thus the labour theory of value asserts that the value of a commodity is determined by the quantity of socially necessary labour time required to produce it.

Marx provides a two-stage argument for the labour theory of value. The first stage is to argue that if two objects can be compared in the sense of being put on either side of an equals sign, then there must be a “third thing of identical magnitude in both of them” to which they are both reducible. As commodities can be exchanged against each other, there must, Marx argues, be a third thing that they have in common. This then motivates the second stage, which is a search for the appropriate “third thing”, which is labour in Marx’s view, as the only plausible common element. Both steps of the argument are, of course, highly contestable.

Capitalism can be distinguished from other forms of commodity exchange, Marx argues, in that it involves not merely the exchange of commodities, but the advancement of capital, in the form of money, with the purpose of generating profit through the purchase of commodities and their transformation into other commodities which can command a higher price, and thus yield a profit. Marx claims that no previous theorist has been able adequately to explain how capitalism as a whole can make a profit. Marx’s own solution relies on the idea of exploitation of the worker. In setting up conditions of production the capitalist purchases the worker’s labour power—his or her ability to labour—for the day. The cost of this commodity is determined in the same way as the cost of every other; that is, in terms of the amount of socially necessary labour power required to produce it. In this case the value of a day’s labour power is the value of the commodities necessary to keep the worker alive for a day. Suppose that such commodities take four hours to produce. Accordingly the first four hours of the working day is spent on producing value equivalent to the value of the wages the worker will be paid. This is known as necessary labour. Any work the worker does above this is known as surplus labour, producing surplus value for the capitalist. Surplus value, according to Marx, is the source of all profit. In Marx’s analysis labour power is the only commodity which can produce more value than it is worth, and for this reason it is known as variable capital. Other commodities simply pass their value on to the finished commodities, but do not create any extra value. They are known as constant capital. Profit, then, is the result of the labour performed by the worker beyond that necessary to create the value of his or her wages. This is the surplus value theory of profit.

It appears to follow from this analysis that as industry becomes more mechanised, using more constant capital and less variable capital, the rate of profit ought to fall. For as a proportion less capital will be advanced on labour, and only labour can create value. In Capital Volume 3 Marx does indeed make the prediction that the rate of profit will fall over time, and this is one of the factors which leads to the downfall of capitalism. (However, as pointed out by Paul Sweezy in The Theory of Capitalist Development (1942), the analysis is problematic.) A further consequence of this analysis is a difficulty for the theory that Marx did recognise, and tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to meet also in the manuscripts that make up Capital Volume 3. It follows from the analysis so far that labour-intensive industries ought to have a higher rate of profit than those which use less labour. Not only is this empirically false, it is theoretically unacceptable. Accordingly, Marx argued that in real economic life prices vary in a systematic way from values. Providing the mathematics to explain this is known as the transformation problem, and Marx’s own attempt suffers from technical difficulties. Although there are sophisticated known techniques for solving this problem now there is a question about the degree to which they do rescue Marx’s project. If it is thought that the labour theory of value was initially motivated as an intuitively plausible theory of price then when the connection between price and value is rendered as indirect as it is in the final theory, the intuitive motivation of the theory drains away. Others consider this to be a superficial reading of Marx, and that his general approach allows us to see through the appearances of capitalism to understand its underlying basis, which need not coincide with appearances. How Marx’s theory of capitalism should be read remains an active area of scholarly debate (Heinrich 2012).

A further objection is that Marx’s assertion that only labour can create surplus value is unsupported by any argument or analysis, and can be argued to be merely an artefact of the nature of his presentation. Any commodity can be picked to play a similar role. Consequently, with equal justification one could set out a corn theory of value, arguing that corn has the unique power of creating more value than it costs. Formally this would be identical to the labour theory of value (Roemer 1982). Nevertheless, the claims that somehow labour is responsible for the creation of value, and that profit is the consequence of exploitation, remain intuitively powerful, even if they are difficult to establish in detail.

However, even if the labour theory of value is considered discredited, there are elements of his theory that remain of worth. The Cambridge economist Joan Robinson, in An Essay on Marxian Economics (1942), picked out two aspects of particular note. First, Marx’s refusal to accept that capitalism involves a harmony of interests between worker and capitalist, replacing this with a class-based analysis of the worker’s struggle for better wages and conditions of work, versus the capitalist’s drive for ever greater profits. Second, Marx’s denial that there is any long-run tendency to equilibrium in the market, and his descriptions of mechanisms which underlie the trade-cycle of boom and bust. Both provide a salutary corrective to aspects of orthodox economic theory.

As noted, traditionally Marx’s definition of exploitation is given in terms of the theory of surplus value, which in turn is taken to depend on the labour theory of value: the theory that the value of any commodity is proportional to the amount of “socially necessary” labour embodied in it. However, the question arises of whether the basic idea of exploitation should be so dependent on a particular theory of value. For if it is, the notion of exploitation becomes vulnerable to Robert Nozick’s objection: that if the labour theory of value can be shown to be faulty, the Marxist theory of exploitation collapses too (Nozick 1974).

Others have felt that it is possible to restore the intuitive core of a Marxist theory of exploitation independent of the labour theory of value (cf. Cohen 1979, Wolff 1999, Vrousalis 2013). John Roemer, to take one leading case, states:

Marxian exploitation is defined as the unequal exchange of labor for goods: the exchange is unequal when the amount of labor embodied in the goods which the worker can purchase with his income … is less than the amount of labor he expended to earn that income.(Roemer 1985: 30)

Suppose I work eight hours to earn my wages. With this perhaps the best thing I can buy is a coat. But imagine that the coat took only a total of four hours to make. Therefore I have exchanged my eight hours work for only four hours of other people’s work, and thereby, on this view, I am exploited.

The definition requires some refinement. For example, if I am taxed for the benefit of those unable to work, I will be exploited by the above definition, but this is not what the definition of exploitation was intended to capture. Worse still, if there is one person exploited much more gravely than anyone else in the economy, then it may turn out that no-one else is exploited. Nevertheless, it should not be difficult to adjust the definition to take account of these difficulties, and as noted several other accounts of Marx-inspired accounts of exploitation have been offered that are independent of the labour theory of value.

Many of these alternative definitions add a notion of unfreedom or domination to unequal exchange of labour and goods (Vrousalis 2013). The exploited person is forced to accept a situation in which he or she just never gets back what they put into the labour process. Now there may be, in particular cases, a great deal to be said about why this is perfectly acceptable from a moral point of view. However, on the face of it such exploitation appears to be unjust. Nevertheless, we will see in the next section why attributing such a position to Marx himself is fraught with difficulty.

5. Morality

The issue of Marx and morality poses a conundrum. On reading Marx’s works at all periods of his life, there appears to be the strongest possible distaste towards bourgeois capitalist society, and an undoubted endorsement of future communist society. Yet the terms of this antipathy and endorsement are far from clear. Despite expectations, Marx never directly says that capitalism is unjust. Neither does he directly say that communism would be a just form of society. In fact he frequently takes pains to distance himself from those who engage in a discourse of justice, and makes a conscious attempt to exclude direct moral commentary in his own works. The puzzle is why this should be, given the weight of indirect moral commentary one also finds in his writings.

There are, initially, separate questions concerning Marx’s attitude to capitalism and to communism. There are also separate questions concerning his attitude to ideas of justice, and to ideas of morality more broadly concerned. This, then, generates four questions: (a) Did Marx think capitalism unjust?; (b) did he think that capitalism could be morally criticised on other grounds?; (c) did he think that communism would be just? (d) did he think it could be morally approved of on other grounds? These are some of the questions we consider in this section.

The initial argument that Marx must have thought that capitalism is unjust is based on the observation that Marx argued that all capitalist profit is ultimately derived from the exploitation of the worker. Capitalism’s dirty secret is that it is not a realm of harmony and mutual benefit but a system in which one class systematically extracts profit from another. How could this fail to be unjust? Yet it is notable that Marx never explicitly draws such a conclusion, and in Capital he goes as far as to say that such exchange is “by no means an injury to the seller” (MECW 35: 204), which some commentators have taken as evidence that Marx did not think that capitalism was unjust, although other readings are possible.

Allen Wood (1972) is perhaps the leading advocate of the view that Marx did not believe that capitalism is unjust. Wood argues that Marx takes this approach because his general theoretical approach excludes any trans-epochal standpoint from which one can comment on the justice of an economic system. Even though it is acceptable to criticise particular behaviour from within an economic structure as unjust (and theft under capitalism would be an example) it is not possible to criticise capitalism as a whole. This is a consequence of Marx’s analysis of the role of ideas of justice from within historical materialism. Marx claims that juridical institutions are part of the superstructure, and that ideas of justice are ideological. Accordingly, the role of both the superstructure and ideology, in the functionalist reading of historical materialism adopted here, is to stabilise the economic structure. Consequently, to state that something is just under capitalism is simply a judgement that it will tend to have the effect of advancing capitalism. According to Marx, in any society the ruling ideas are those of the ruling class; the core of the theory of ideology.

Ziyad Husami (1978) however, argues that Wood is mistaken, ignoring the fact that for Marx ideas undergo a double determination. We need to differentiate not just by economic system, but also by economic class within the system. Therefore the ideas of the non-ruling class may be very different from those of the ruling class. Of course, it is the ideas of the ruling class that receive attention and implementation, but this does not mean that other ideas do not exist. Husami goes as far as to argue that members of the proletariat under capitalism have an account of justice that matches communism. From this privileged standpoint of the proletariat, which is also Marx’s standpoint, capitalism is unjust, and so it follows that Marx thought capitalism unjust.

Plausible though it may sound, Husami’s argument fails to account for two related points. First, it cannot explain why Marx never explicitly described capitalism as unjust, and second, it overlooks the distance Marx wanted to place between his own scientific socialism, and that of other socialists who argued for the injustice of capitalism. Hence one cannot avoid the conclusion that the “official” view of Marx is that capitalism is not unjust.

Nevertheless, this leaves us with a puzzle. Much of Marx’s description of capitalism—his use of the words “embezzlement”, “robbery” and “exploitation”—belie the official account. Arguably, the only satisfactory way of understanding this issue is, once more, from G.A. Cohen, who proposes that Marx believed that capitalism was unjust, but did not believe that he believed it was unjust (Cohen 1983). In other words, Marx, like so many of us, did not have perfect knowledge of his own mind. In his explicit reflections on the justice of capitalism he was able to maintain his official view. But in less guarded moments his real view slips out, even if never in explicit language. Such an interpretation is bound to be controversial, but it makes good sense of the texts.

Whatever one concludes on the question of whether Marx thought capitalism unjust, it is, nevertheless, obvious that Marx thought that capitalism was not the best way for human beings to live. Points made in his early writings remain present throughout his writings, if no longer connected to an explicit theory of alienation. The worker finds work a torment, suffers poverty, overwork and lack of fulfilment and freedom. People do not relate to each other as humans should. Does this amount to a moral criticism of capitalism or not? In the absence of any special reason to argue otherwise, it simply seems obvious that Marx’s critique is a moral one. Capitalism impedes human flourishing. It is hard to disagree with the judgement that Marx

thinks that the capitalist exploitation of labor power is a wrong that has horrendous consequences for the laborers. (Roberts 2017: 129)

Marx, though, once more refrained from making this explicit; he seemed to show no interest in locating his criticism of capitalism in any of the traditions of moral philosophy, or explaining how he was generating a new tradition. There may have been two reasons for his caution. The first was that while there were bad things about capitalism, there is, from a world historical point of view, much good about it too. For without capitalism, communism would not be possible. Capitalism is to be transcended, not abolished, and this may be difficult to convey in the terms of moral philosophy.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, we need to return to the contrast between Marxian and other forms of socialism. Many non-Marxian socialists appealed to universal ideas of truth and justice to defend their proposed schemes, and their theory of transition was based on the idea that appealing to moral sensibilities would be the best, perhaps only, way of bringing about the new chosen society. Marx wanted to distance himself from these other socialist traditions, and a key point of distinction was to argue that the route to understanding the possibilities of human emancipation lay in the analysis of historical and social forces, not in morality. Hence, for Marx, any appeal to morality was theoretically a backward step.

This leads us now to Marx’s assessment of communism. Would communism be a just society? In considering Marx’s attitude to communism and justice there are really only two viable possibilities: either he thought that communism would be a just society or he thought that the concept of justice would not apply: that communism would transcend justice.

Communism is described by Marx, in the Critique of the Gotha Programme , as a society in which each person should contribute according to their ability and receive according to their need. This certainly sounds like a theory of justice, and could be adopted as such (Gilabert 2015). However, many will hold that it is truer to Marx’s thought to say that this is part of an account in which communism transcends justice, as Lukes has argued (Lukes 1987).

If we start with the idea that the point of ideas of justice is to resolve disputes, then a society without disputes would have no need or place for justice. We can see this by reflecting upon the idea of the circumstances of justice in the work of David Hume (1711–1776). Hume argued that if there was enormous material abundance—if everyone could have whatever they wanted without invading another’s share—we would never have devised rules of justice. And, of course, there are suggestions in Marx’s writings that communism would be a society of such abundance. But Hume also suggested that justice would not be needed in other circumstances; if there were complete fellow-feeling between all human beings, there would be no conflict and no need for justice. Of course, one can argue whether either material abundance or human fellow-feeling to this degree would be possible, but the point is that both arguments give a clear sense in which communism transcends justice.

Nevertheless, we remain with the question of whether Marx thought that communism could be commended on other moral grounds. On a broad understanding, in which morality, or perhaps better to say ethics, is concerned with the idea of living well, it seems that communism can be assessed favourably in this light. One compelling argument is that Marx’s career simply makes no sense unless we can attribute such a belief to him. But beyond this we can be brief in that the considerations adduced in Section 2 above apply again. Communism clearly advances human flourishing, in Marx’s view. The only reason for denying that, in Marx’s vision, it would amount to a good society is a theoretical antipathy to the word “good”. And here the main point is that, in Marx’s view, communism would not be brought about by high-minded benefactors of humanity. Quite possibly his determination to retain this point of difference between himself and other socialists led him to disparage the importance of morality to a degree that goes beyond the call of theoretical necessity.

6. Ideology

The account of ideology contained in Marx’s writings is regularly portrayed as a crucial element of his intellectual legacy. It has been identified as among his “most influential” ideas (Elster 1986: 168), and acclaimed as “the most fertile” part of his social and political theory (Leiter 2004: 84). Not least, these views on ideology are said to constitute Marx’s claim to a place—alongside Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) and Sigmund Freud (1856–1939)—as one of the “masters of suspicion”; that is, as an author whose work casts doubt on the transparency of our everyday understandings of both our own identity and the social world we inhabit (Ricouer 1970: 32–33).

Given this enthusiastic reception, it can come as something of a surprise to turn to Marx’s writings and discover how little they contain about ideology, and how inchoate and opaque those infrequent and passing observations on that topic are. There are, of course, some famous quotations, not least from The German Ideology manuscripts. The references there to ideology as involving an “inversion” of the relation between individuals and their circumstances, perhaps analogous to the workings of a “camera obscura”—an optical device which projected an image of its surroundings, upside down but preserving perspective, onto a screen inside—have often mesmerised commentators but not always generated much genuine illumination ( MECW 5: 36). The point should not be exaggerated, but these striking images notwithstanding, there is no clear and sustained discussion of ideology in the Marxian corpus.

Many commentators maintain that the search for a single model of ideology in his work has to be given up. Indeed, there is something of an “arms race” in the literature, as commentators discover two, three, even five, competing models of ideology in Marx’s writings (Mepham 1979; Wood 1981 [2004]; Rosen 1996). Most surprisingly, it seems that some licence can be found in Marx’s corpus for three very different ways of thinking about what ideology is. There is textual evidence of his variously utilising: a “descriptive” account of ideology involving a broadly anthropological study of the beliefs and rituals characteristic of certain groups; a “positive” account of ideology as a “worldview” providing the members of a group with a sense of meaning and identity; and a “critical” account seeking to liberate individuals from certain false and misleading forms of understanding (Geuss 1981: 4–26).

It is the last of these—the critical account rather than either of the two “non-critical” accounts—which is central to his wider social and political theory, but this account is itself subject to some considerable interpretative disagreement. Marx’s theory of ideology is usually portrayed as an element in what might be called Marx’s sociology, as distinct from his philosophical anthropology say, or his theory of history (although complexly related to the latter).

Marx does not view ideology as a feature of all societies, and, in particular, suggests that it will not be a feature of a future communist society. However, ideology is portrayed as a feature of all class-divided societies, and not only of capitalist society—although many of Marx’s comments on ideology are concerned with the latter. The theory of ideology appears to play a role in explaining a feature of class-divided societies which might otherwise appear puzzling, namely what might be called their “stability”; that is, the absence of overt and serious conflict between social classes. This stability is not permanent, but it can last for extended historical periods. This stability appears puzzling to Marx because class-divided societies are flawed in ways which not only frustrate human flourishing, but also work to the material advantage of the ruling minority. Why do the subordinate classes, who form a majority, tolerate these flaws, when resistance and rebellion of various kinds might be in their objective interests?

Marx’s account of the sources of social stability in class-divided societies appeals to both repressive and non-repressive mechanisms. Such societies might often involve the direct repression (or the threat of it) of one group by another, but Marx does not think that this is the whole story. There are also non-repressive sources of social stability, and ideology is usually, and plausibly, considered one of these. Very roughly, Marx’s account of ideology claims that the dominant social ideas in such societies are typically false or misleading in a fashion that works to the advantage of the economically dominant class.

We should note that ideology would seem to be a part and not the whole of Marx’s account of the non-repressive sources of stability in class divided societies. Other factors might include: dull economic pressure, including the daily grind of having to earn a living; doubts—justified or otherwise—about the feasibility of alternatives; sensitivity to the possible costs of radical social change; and collective action problems of various kinds which face those who do want to rebel and resist. Marx does not think individuals are permanently trapped within ideological modes of thinking. Ideology may have an initial hold, but it is not portrayed as impervious to reason and evidence, especially in circumstances in which the objective conditions for social change obtain.

For Marx ideological beliefs are social in that they are widely shared, indeed so widely-shared that for long periods they constitute the “ruling” or “dominant” ideas in a given class-divided society ( MECW 5: 59). And they are social in that they directly concern, or indirectly impact upon, the action-guiding understandings of self and society that individuals have. These action-guiding understandings include the dominant legal, political, religious, and philosophical views within particular class-divided societies in periods of stability (MECW 29: 263).

Not all false or misleading beliefs count for Marx as ideological. Honest scientific error, for example can be non-ideological. And ideological belief can be misleading without being strictly false. For example, defenders of the capitalist economy portray what Marx calls the “wage form”, with its exchange of equivalents, as the whole (rather than a part) of the story about the relation between capital and labour, thereby ignoring the exploitation which occurs in the sphere of production. Indeed, the notion of the “falsity” of ideology needs to be expanded beyond the content of the “ideas” in question, to include cases where their origins are in some way contaminated (Geuss 1981: 19–22). Perhaps the only reason I believe something to be the case is that the belief in question has a consoling effect on me. Arguably such a belief is held ideologically, even if it happens to be true. Nevertheless paradigmatic examples of ideology have a false content. For example, ideology often portrays institutions, policies, and decisions which are in the interests of the economically dominant class, as being in the interests of the society as a whole ( MECW 5: 60); and ideology often portrays social and political arrangements which are contingent, or historical, or artificial, as being necessary, or universal, or natural ( MECW 35: 605).

In addition to false or misleading content, ideological beliefs typically have at least two additional characteristics, relating to their social origin and their class function. By the “social origin” of ideology is meant that Marx thinks of these ideas as often originating with, and being reinforced by, the complex structure of class-divided societies—a complex structure in which a deceptive surface appearance is governed by underlying essential relations (Geras 1986: 63–84). Capitalism is seen as especially deceptive in appearance; for example, Marx often contrasts the relative transparency of “exploitation” under feudalism, with the way in which the “wage form” obscures the ratio of necessary and surplus labour in capitalist societies. Ideology stems, in part, from this deceptive surface appearance which makes it difficult to grasp the underlying social flaws that benefit the economically dominant class. Marx portrays the striving to uncover essences concealed by misleading appearances as characteristic of scientific endeavour ( MECW 37, 804). And, in this context, he distinguishes between classical political economy, which strove—albeit not always successfully—to uncover the essential relations often concealed behind misleading appearances, and what he calls vulgar economy, which happily restricts itself to the misleading appearances themselves ( MECW 37, 804).

By the “class function” of ideology is meant that Marx holds that the pervasiveness of ideology is explained by the fact it helps stabilise the economic structure of societies. All sorts of ideas might get generated for all sorts of reasons, but the ones that tend to “stick” (become widely accepted) in class-divided societies do so, not because of their truth, but because they conceal or misrepresent or justify flaws in that society in ways which redound to the benefit of the economically dominant class (Rosen & Wolff 1996: 235–236).

In response critics often see this as just another example of sloppy functional reasoning—purportedly widespread in the Marxist tradition—whereby a general pattern is asserted without the identification of any of the mechanisms which might generate that pattern. In the present case, it is said that Marx never properly explains why the ruling ideas should be those of the ruling class (Elster 1985: 473). Yet there are obvious possible mechanisms here. To give two examples. First, there is the control of the ruling class over the means of mental production, and in particular the print and broadcast media which in capitalist societies are typically owned and controlled by the very wealthy ( MECW 5, 59). A second possible mechanism appeals to the psychological need of individuals for invented narratives that legitimise or justify their social position; for instance, Marx identifies a widespread need, in flawed societies, for the consolatory effects of religion ( MECW 3, 175).

7. State and Politics

This broad heading—the state and politics—could cover very many different issues. To make the present account manageable, only two are addressed here: Marx’s account of the state in capitalist society; and Marx’s account of the fate of the state in communist society. (Consequently, many other important political issues—the nature of pre-capitalist states, relations between states, the political transition to communism, and so on—are not dealt with.)

Marx offers no unified theoretical account of the state in capitalist society. Instead his remarks on this topic are scattered across the course of his activist life, and deeply embedded in discussions of contemporary events, events which most modern readers will know very little about. Providing some initial order to that complexity, Jon Elster helpfully identifies three different models in Marx’s writings of the relationship, in capitalist society, between the political state, on the one hand, and the economically dominant class, on the other. (The next three paragraphs draw heavily on Elster 1985: 409–437.)

First, the “instrumental” model portrays the state as simply a tool, directly controlled by the economically dominant class, in its own interests, at the expense of the interests both of other classes and of the community as a whole. Marx is usually said to endorse the instrumental account in the Communist Manifesto , where he and Engels insist that “the executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie” ( MECW 6: 486). On this account, the state might also act against the short term, or the factional, interests of particular capitalists. The picture here is of the state as an instrument directed—presumably by a subset of capitalists or their representatives—in ways which promote the long term interests of the bourgeoisie as a whole. The precise mechanisms which might facilitate that result are not clear in Marx’s writings.

Second, the “class balance” model portrays the state as having interests of its own, with capitalist interests as merely one of the strategic limits on its pursuit of these. This model gets its name from the exceptional social circumstances said to explain the independence of the state in this case. In situations where the social power of the two warring classes of contemporary society—capitalists and workers—are very nearly balanced, the political state (and especially the executive) can gain independence from both, exploiting that conflict in order to promote its own interests (the interests of the political caste). Something like this picture appears in Marx’s discussions of the continued existence of certain absolutist states after the revolutions of 1848, and of the Bonapartist state established in France by the coup of Napoleon III in December 1851. The state now competes with capitalists and proletarians (and is not merely the tool of the former), and by “promising each of the major classes to protect it against the other, the government can rule autonomously” (Elster 1985: 425). On this account, the state has interests of its own, but presumably only gets to pursue them if those promises to others are plausible, finding some reflection in its policies and behaviour. Capitalist interests accordingly remain a political constraint, but they are now only one of the factors constraining the state’s actions rather than constituting its primary goal.

Third, the “abdication” model presents the bourgeoisie as staying away from the direct exercise of political power, but doing this because it is in their economic interests to do so. As Elster notes, strictly speaking, “abdication” here covers two slightly different cases—first, where the bourgeoisie abdicate from the political power that they initially controlled (relevant to France); and, second, where the bourgeoisie abstain from taking political power in the first place (relevant to Britain and Germany)—but they can be treated together. In both cases, Marx identifies a situation where “in order to save its purse, [the bourgeoisie] must forfeit the crown” ( MECW 11: 143). Where the instrumental picture claims that the state acts in the interests of the capitalist class because it is directly controlled by the latter, the abdication picture advances an explanatory connection between the promotion of bourgeois interests and the retreat from the direct exercise of power. Circumstances obtain where “the political rule of the bourgeoisie” turns out to be “incompatible” with its continued economic flourishing, and the bourgeoisie seeks “to get rid of its own political rule in order to get rid of the troubles and dangers of ruling” ( MECW 11: 173). There are several possible explanations of why the bourgeoisie might remain outside of politics in order to promote their own interests. To give three examples: the bourgeoisie might recognise that their own characteristic short-termism could be fatal to their own interests if they exercised direct political as well as economic power; the bourgeoisie might find political rule sufficiently time and effort consuming to withdraw from it, discovering that the economic benefits kept on coming regardless; or the bourgeoisie might appreciate that abdication weakened their class opponents, forcing the proletariat to fight on two fronts (against capital and government) and thereby making it less able to win those struggles.

There are many questions one might have about these three models.

First, one might wonder which of these three models best embodies Marx’s considered view? The instrumental account is the earliest account, which he largely abandons from the early 1850s, presumably noticing how poorly it captured contemporary political realities—in particular, the stable existence of states which were not directly run by the capitalist class, but which still in some way served their interests. That outcome is possible under either of the two other accounts. However, Marx seems to have thought of the class balance model as a temporary solution in exceptional circumstances, and perhaps held that it failed to allow the stable explanatory connection that he sought between the extant political arrangements and the promotion of dominant economic interests. In short, for better or worse, Marx’s considered view looks closer to the abdication account, reflecting his conviction that the central features of political life are explained by the existing economic structure.

Second, one might wonder which model allows greatest “autonomy” to the political state? A weak definition of state autonomy might portray the state as autonomous when it is independent of direct control by the economically dominant class. On this definition, both the class balance and abdication models—but not the instrumental account—seem to provide for autonomy. A stronger definition of state autonomy might require what Elster calls “explanatory autonomy”, which exists

when (and to the extent that) its structure and policies cannot be explained by the interest of an economically dominant class. (Elster 1985: 405)

Only the class balance view seems to allow significant explanatory autonomy. In his preferred abdication account, Marx allows that the state in capitalist society is independent of direct capitalist control, but goes on to claim that its main structures (including that very independence) and policies are ultimately explained by the interests of the capitalist class.

For reasons discussed below (see Section 8 ), Marx declines to say much about the basic structure of a future communist society. However, in the case of the fate of the state, that reluctance is partially mitigated by his view that the institutional arrangements of the Paris Commune prefigured the political dimensions of communist society.

Marx’s views on the nature and fate of the state in communist society are to be distinguished from his infrequent, and subsequently notorious, use of the term “the dictatorship of the proletariat”. (On the infrequency, context, and content, of these uses see Draper 1986 and Hunt 1974.) The idea of “dictatorship” in this historical context has the (ancient) connotation of emergency rule rather than the (modern) connotation of totalitarianism. Marx’s use makes it clear that any such temporary government should be democratic; for instance, in having majority support, and in preserving democratic rights (of speech, association, and so on). However, it is by definition “extra-legal” in that it seeks to establish a new regime and not to preserve an old one. So understood, the dictatorship of the proletariat forms part of the political transition to communist society (a topic not covered here), rather than part of the institutional structure of communist society itself. The “dictatorial”—that is, the temporary and extra-legal—character of this regime ends with establishment of a new and stable polity, and it is the latter which is discussed here (Hunt 1974: 297).

The character of the state in communist society consists, in part, of its form (its institutional arrangements) and its function (the tasks that it undertakes).

Some sense of the form of the state in communist society can be gained from Marx’s engagement with the Paris Commune. His preferred future political arrangements involve a high degree of participation, and the radical “de-professionalisation” of certain public offices. First, Marx is enthusiastic about regular elections, universal suffrage, mandat impératif , recall, open executive proceedings, decentralisation, and so on. Second, he objects to public offices (in the legislature, executive, and judiciary) being the spoils of a political caste, and sought to make them working positions, remunerated at the average worker’s wage, and regularly circulating (through election). This combination of arrangements has been characterised as “democracy without professionals” (Hunt 1974: 365). Marx saw it as reflecting his view that:

Freedom consists in converting the state from an organ superimposed upon society into one completely subordinate to it. ( MECW 24: 94)

Some sense of the function of the state in communist society can be gained from Marx’s distinction between “necessary” tasks that a state would need to undertake in all societies (at least, economically developed societies), and “unnecessary” tasks that a state would only need to undertake in class-divided societies. The difficulty here is less in allowing this distinction, than in deciding what might fall into each category. On the necessary side, Marx appears to require that the state in communist society provide both: democratic solutions to coordination problems (deciding which side of the road traffic should drive on, for instance); and the supply of public goods (health, welfare, education, and so on). On the unnecessary side, Marx seems to think that a communist society might hugely reduce, or even eliminate, the element of organised coercion found in most states (in the form of standing armies, police forces, and so on). At least, this reduction might be feasible once communist society had reached its higher stage (where distribution is based on “the needs principle”), and there is no longer a threat from non-communist societies.

Again, there are many reservations that one might have about this account.

First, many will be sceptical about its feasibility, and perhaps especially of the purported reduction, still less elimination, of state coercion. That scepticism might be motivated by the thought that this would only be possible if communist society were characterised by widespread social and political consensus, and that such consensus is, both unlikely (at least, in modern societies), and undesirable (diversity and disagreement having a value). However, the reduction, or even elimination, of state coercion might be compatible with certain forms of continuing disagreement about the ends and means of communist society. Imagine that a democratic communist polity introduces a new law prohibiting smoking in public places, and that a representative smoker (call her Anne) obeys that law despite being among the minority who wanted this practice permitted. Anne’s motivation for obedience, we can stipulate, is grounded, not in fear of the likely response of bodies of armed persons enforcing the law, but rather in respect for the democratic majority of the community of which she is a part. In short, reasonably strong assumptions about the democratic commitments of individuals might allow the scaling down of organised coercion without having to presume universal agreement amongst citizens on all issues.

Second, some might object to the reference, throughout this section, to the “state” in communist society. It might be said that a polity whose form and functions are so radically transformed—the form by democratic participation and de-professionalisation, the function by eliminating historically unnecessary tasks—is insufficiently “state-like” to be called a state. That is certainly possible, but the terminological claim would appear to assume that there is greater clarity and agreement about just what a state is, either than is presupposed here or than exists in the world. Given that lack of consensus, “state” seems a suitably prudent choice. As well as being consistent with some of Marx’s usage, it avoids prejudging this very issue. However, anyone unmoved by those considerations can simply replace “state”, in this context, with their own preferred alternative.

8. Utopianism

It is well-known that Marx never provided a detailed account of the basic structure of the future communist society that he predicted. This was not simply an omission on his part, but rather reflects his deliberate commitment, as he colloquially has it, to refrain from writing “recipes” for the “restaurants” of the future ( MECW 35: 17, translation amended).

The reasoning that underpins this commitment can be reconstructed from Marx’s engagement with the radical political tradition that he called “utopian socialism”, and whose founding triumvirate were Charles Fourier (1772–1837), Henri Saint-Simon (1760–1825), and Robert Owen (1771–1858). Note that the distinction between Marxian socialism and utopian socialism is not an exhaustive one. Marx happily allows that there are socialists who are neither Marxian nor Utopian; for example, the “feudal socialists” discussed in the Communist Manifesto .

What distinguishes utopian from other socialists is, in large part, their view that providing persuasive constructive plans and blueprints of future socialist arrangements is a legitimate and necessary activity. (The expression “plans and blueprints” is used here to capture the necessary detail of these descriptions, and not to suggest that these designs have to be thought of as “stipulative”, as having to be followed to the letter.) On the utopian account, the socialist future needs to be designed before it can be delivered; the plans and blueprints being intended to guide and motivate socialists in their transformative ambitions. Of course, that Marx is not in this sense utopian does not rule out the possibility of additional (here unspecified) senses in which he might accurately be so described.

Marx’s account of utopian socialism might appear contradictory. It is certainly easy to find not only passages fiercely criticising utopian authors and texts, but also passages generously praising them. However, that criticism and that praise turn out to attach to slightly different targets, revealing an underlying and consistent structure to his account.

That underlying structure rests on two main distinctions. The first distinction is a chronological one running between the founding triumvirate, on the one hand, and second and subsequent generations of utopian socialists, on the other. (These later generations including both loyal followers of the founding triumvirate, and independent later figures such as Étienne Cabet (1788–1856)). The second distinction is a substantive one running between the critical part of utopian writings (the portrayal of faults within contemporary capitalist society), on the one hand, and the constructive part of utopian writings (the detailed description of the ideal socialist future), on the other.

Note that these distinctions underpin the asymmetry of Marx’s assessment of utopian socialism. Simply put: he is more enthusiastic and positive about the achievements of the first generation of utopians, by comparison with those of second and subsequent generations; and he is more enthusiastic and positive about the utopians’ criticism of contemporary society, by comparison with the utopians’ constructive endeavours.

The remainder of this section will focus on Marx’s disapproval of the constructive endeavours of the utopians.

In trying to organise and understand Marx’s various criticisms of utopianism, it is helpful to distinguish between foundational and non-foundational variants. (This distinction is intended to be exhaustive, in that all of his criticisms of utopianism will fall into one of these two categories.) Non-foundational criticisms of utopian socialism are those which, if sound, would provide us with a reason to reject views which might be held by, or even be characteristic of, utopian socialists, but which are not constitutive of their utopianism. That is, they would give us a reason to abandon the relevant beliefs, or to criticise those (including utopians) who held them, but they would not give us cause to reject utopianism as such. In contrast, foundational criticisms of utopian socialism are those which, if sound, would provide us with a reason to reject utopianism as such; that is, a reason to refrain from engaging in socialist design, a reason not to describe in relevant detail the socialist society of the future. (Of course, that reason might not be decisive, all things considered, but it would still count against utopianism per se.)

Many of Marx’s best-known criticisms of utopian socialism are non-foundational. For instance, in the Communist Manifesto , he complains that utopian socialists hold a mistaken “ahistorical” view of social change. The utopians purportedly fail to understand that the achievement of socialism depends on conditions which can only emerge at a certain stage of historical development. They might, for instance, recognise that there are strategic preconditions for socialism (for instance, the right blueprint and sufficient will to put it into practice), but (mistakenly on Marx’s account) imagine that those preconditions could have appeared at any point in time. This complaint is non-foundational in that one can accept that there are historical conditions for establishing a socialist society, and that the utopian socialists fail to understand this, without thereby having a reason to abandon utopianism as such. A commitment to the necessity and desirability of socialist design does not require one to hold an “ahistorical” view of social change.

Assessing the soundness of non-foundational criticisms, and their relevance to the utopian socialist tradition, is a complicated task (see Leopold 2018). However, even if sound and relevant, these criticisms would provide no reason to abandon utopianism as such . Consequently, they are pursued no further here. Instead, the focus is on the three main foundational arguments against utopianism that can be located in Marx’s writings; namely, that utopian plans and blueprints are necessarily undemocratic, impossible, and redundant (see Leopold 2016).

Marx’s first argument involves a normative claim that utopian plans and blueprints are undemocratic . (“Democracy” here connoting individual and collective self-determination, rather than political forms of governance.) The basic argument runs: that it is undemocratic to limit the self-determination of individuals; that providing a plan or blueprint for a socialist society limits the self-determination of individuals; and that therefore the provision of plans and blueprints for a socialist society is undemocratic. If we add in the assumption that undemocratic means are undesirable; then we can conclude that it is undesirable to provide plans or blueprints of a future socialist society. One central reason for resisting this argument is that it is hard to identify a plausible account of the conditions for self-determination, according to which it is necessarily true that merely providing a socialist plan or blueprint restricts self-determination. Indeed, one might heretically think that detailed plans and blueprints often tend to promote self-determination, helping individuals think about where it is they want to go, and how they want to get there.

Marx’s second argument rests on an epistemological claim that that utopian plans and blueprints are impossible , because they require accurate knowledge of the future of a kind which cannot be had. The basic argument starts from the assumption that to be of any use a blueprint must facilitate the construction of a future socialist society. Moreover, to facilitate the construction of a future socialist society a blueprint must be completely accurate; and to be completely accurate a blueprint must predict all the relevant circumstances of that future society. However, since it is not possible—given the complexity of the social world and the limitations of human nature—to predict all the relevant circumstances of that future society, we can conclude that socialist blueprints are of no use. One central reason for resisting this argument is that, whilst it is hard to deny that completely accurate plans are impossible (given the complexity of the world and the limitations of human understanding), the claim that only completely accurate plans are useful seems doubtful. Plans are not simply predictions, and providing less than wholly accurate plans for ourselves often forms part of the process whereby we help determine the future for ourselves (insofar as that is possible).

Marx’s third argument depends on an empirical claim that utopian plans and blueprints are unnecessary , because satisfactory solutions to social problems emerge automatically from the unfolding of the historical process without themselves needing to be designed. The basic argument runs as follows: that utopian blueprints describe the basic structure of the socialist society of the future; and that such blueprints are necessary if and only if the basic structure of future socialist society needs to be designed. However, given that the basic structure of the future socialist society develops automatically (without design assistance) within capitalist society; and that the role of human agency in this unfolding historical process is to deliver (not design) that basic structure, Marx concludes that utopian blueprints are redundant. Reasons for resisting this argument include scepticism about both Marx’s reasoning and the empirical record. Marx is certain that humankind does not need to design the basic structure of the future socialist society, but it is not really made clear who or what does that designing in its place. Moreover, the path of historical development since Marx’s day does not obviously confirm the complex empirical claim that the basic structure of socialist society is developing automatically within existing capitalism, needing only to be delivered (and not designed) by human agency.

This brief discussion suggests that there are cogent grounds for doubting Marx’s claim that utopian plans and blueprints are necessarily undemocratic, impossible, and redundant.

Finally, recall that Marx is less enthusiastic about the second and subsequent generations of utopians, than he is about the original triumvirate. We might reasonably wonder about the rationale for greater criticism of later utopians. It is important to recognise that it is not that second and subsequent generations make more or grosser errors than the original triumvirate. (Indeed, Marx appears to think that all these different generations largely held the same views, and made the same mistakes). The relevant difference is rather that, by comparison with their successors, this first generation were not to blame for those errors. In short, the rationale behind Marx’s preference for the first over the second and subsequent generations of utopian socialists is based on an understanding of historical development and an associated notion of culpability .

Marx held that the intellectual formation of this first generation took place in a historical context (the cusp of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries) which was sufficiently developed to provoke socialist criticism, but not sufficiently developed for that socialist criticism to escape serious misunderstandings (Cohen 2000: 51). Since neither the material conditions of modern society, nor the historical agent capable of bringing socialism about, were sufficiently developed, this first generation were bound to develop faulty accounts of the nature of, and transition to, socialism. However, that defence—the historical unavoidability of error—is not available to subsequent generations who, despite significantly changed circumstances, hold fast to the original views of their intellectual forerunners. Marx maintains that more recent utopians, unlike the original triumvirate, really ought to know better.

At this point, we might be expected briefly to survey Marx’s legacy.

That legacy is often elaborated in terms of movements and thinkers. However, so understood, the controversy and scale of that legacy make brevity impossible, and this entry is already long enough. All we can do here is gesture at the history and mention some further reading.

The chronology here might provisionally be divided into three historical periods: from Marx’s death until the Russia Revolution (1917); from the Russian Revolution to the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989); and since 1989. It seems hard to say much that is certain about the last of these periods, but some generalisations about the first two might be hazarded.

That first period of “Classical Marxism” can be thought of in two generational waves. The first smaller group of theorists was associated with the Second International, and includes Karl Kautsky (1854–1938) and Plekhanov. The succeeding more activist generation includes Rosa Luxemburg (1871–1919), V.I. Lenin (1870–1924) and Leon Trotsky (1879–1940).

The second period is perhaps dominated by “Soviet Marxism” and the critical reaction from other Marxists that it provoked. The repressive bureaucratic regimes which solidified in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe repressed independent theoretical work, including scholarly editorial work on the writings of Marx and Engels. However, they also provoked a critical reaction in the form of a body of thought often called “Western Marxism”, usually said to include the work of Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937), Theodor Adorno (1903–1969), and Althusser. The later parts of this period saw the continuing development of “Critical Theory”, as well as the birth of currents such as “Analytical Marxism” whose longer term impact is uncertain.

These first two periods are both partly covered by the Polish philosopher and historian of ideas, Leszek Kołakowski, in the final two volumes of his encyclopaedic three volume Main Currents of Marxism (1976 [1978]). A succinct critical account of the emergence and distinctive character of Western Marxism is provided by Perry Anderson in his Considerations on Western Marxism (1976). And some of the more philosophically interesting authors in this latter tradition are also covered elsewhere in this Encyclopaedia (see the Related Entries section below). Finally, and edging a little into the third of these historical periods, Christoph Henning offers an account of the (mis) readings of Marx—especially those replacing social theory with moral philosophy—in German philosophy from Heidegger to Habermas and beyond, in his Philosophy After Marx (2014).

However, we might also think of Marx’s legacy, less in terms of thinkers and movements, and more in terms of reasons for wanting to study Marx’s ideas. In that context, we would stress that this is not simply a question of the truth of his various substantive claims. The work of philosophers is, of course, also valued for the originality, insight, potential, and so on, that it may also contain. And, so judged, Marx’s writings have much to offer.

The various strands of Marx’s thought surveyed here include his philosophical anthropology, his theory of history, his critical engagement with the economic and political dimensions of capitalism, and a frustratingly vague outline of what might replace it. Whatever the connections between these threads, it seems implausible to suggest that Marx’s ideas form a system which has to be swallowed or rejected in its entirety. It might, for instance, be that Marx’s diagnosis looks more persuasive than his remedies. Readers may have little confidence in his solutions, but that does not mean that the problems he identifies are not acute.

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Conflict Theory in Sociology

Charlotte Nickerson

Research Assistant at Harvard University

Undergraduate at Harvard University

Charlotte Nickerson is a student at Harvard University obsessed with the intersection of mental health, productivity, and design.

Learn about our Editorial Process

Saul Mcleod, PhD

Editor-in-Chief for Simply Psychology

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Saul Mcleod, PhD., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years of experience in further and higher education. He has been published in peer-reviewed journals, including the Journal of Clinical Psychology.

On This Page:

Conflict theory in sociology posits that society is characterized by various inequalities and conflicts that arise due to differences in power, resources, and social status. It emphasizes the competition between groups, often framing issues in terms of dominance and subordination. This theory challenges the status quo and highlights social change driven by these conflicts.

Key Takeaways

  • Conflict theories emphasize looking at the history and events in a society in terms of structural power divisions, such as social class.
  • Although few modern sociologists call themselves conflict theorists, scholars as notable as Karl Marx (1818–1883), Max Weber (1864–1920), Talcott Parsons (1902–1979), and Ralf Dahrendorf (1929–2009) have formulated theories as to what causes conflict, its normalcy, and the impact it has on societies.
  • A structural conflict approach, such as Marxism , believes that society is in a conflict between the classes. They believe that the Bourgeoisie oppress the Proletariat through various social institutions without their full knowledge.
  • Some sociologists, such as Crouch (2001), categorize conflict theories across two axes: momentous vs. mundane and exceptional vs. endemic. This categorization reflects when and the extent to which theorists believe that conflict is pathological in a society.
  • Sociologists have used conflict theory to frame and enhance discussions as far-ranging as historical events to individualistic vs. collectivistic cultures and gender discrimination in the workplace.

Marx conflict theory

What is Conflict Theory?

Conflict theory is a general term covering a number of sociological approaches, which appose functionalism and which share the idea that the basic feature of all societies was the struggle between different groups for access to limited resources.

Conflict theories assume that all societies have structural power divisions and resource inequalities that lead to groups having conflicting interests (Wells, 1979).

For example, Marxism emphasizes class conflict over economic resources, but Weber suggests that conflict and inequality can be caused by power and status independently of class structures.

Evolution of Conflict Theory

Large-scale civil unrest and large demographic dislocations, extreme poverty, and a wide gap between the interests and wealth of workers and owners led to the development of Marxist conflict theory, which emphasizes the omnipresence of the divides of social class.

Later, conflict theory manifested in World Wars and Civil Rights movements, empowerment movements, and rebuttals of colonial rule (Bartos and Wehr, 2002).

Although people have been spreading conflict from a folk knowledge context for millennia, the philosophy underlying conflict theory — and intentional thinking around how people understand conflict and how they can resolve it in constructive ways — stems from the thinking of Karl Marx, Max Weber, and George Simmel.

However, sociologists such as Bartos and Wehr (2002) propose the definition that conflict is any situation where actors use conflict action against each other in order to attain incompatible goals or to express their hostility.

When two or more individuals pursue incompatible interests, they are in a relationship of conflict. For example, if the workers in a factory wish to work as little as possible and be paid as much as possible, and the owners want the workers to work as much as possible with as little pay as possible, then the workers and owners have incompatible interests (Bartos and Wehr, 2002).

Conflict can also manifest when groups do not necessarily have incompatible goals but feel hostility toward each other.

Hostility arises out of non-rational decision-making, which is impulsive and often at odds with the actions rational analysis (such as prospect or utility theory) may suggest.

Because of this contradiction, conflict behavior heavily influenced by hostility can be damaging to the actor’s interest in the long term (Bartos and Wehr, 2002).

Finally, “conflict behavior” covers many types of behavior. Conflict behavior can consist of rational actions (actions that consider and accurately judge all possible outcomes) and the expression of hostility, as well as behavior that is either coercive (such as causing great physical harm to an opponent) or cooperative (Bartos and Wehr, 2002).

Understanding Conflict Theory

Functionalist approaches to conflict theory.

Functionalist theories, particularly those of structural functionalism, which dominated the US in the 1940s and 1950s, tend to see conflict as momentous and exceptional (i.e., unusual). When conflict is momentous, it is likely to result in major upheavals and potentially momentous change.

Functionalism, in sum, is a theory based on the premise that every aspect of society — such as institutions, roles, and norms — serves some purpose to society and that all of these systems work together with internal consistency (Wells, 1979).

Talcott Parsons (1964) is the most prominent structural functionalist who studied conflict. Parsons believed that conflict generally did not overwhelm social relations, and thus, that overwhelming, momentous conflict was exceptional.

When conflict does happen in a social situation, it is because there is something psychologically wrong with one of these essential institutions, and thus, conflict is a harbinger of potentially major change (Crouch, 2001).

Marxist Approach to Conflict Theory

Marx’s version of conflict theory focused on the conflict between two primary classes within capitalist society: the ruling capitalist class (or bourgeoisie), who own the means of production, and the working class (or proletariat), whose alienated labor the bourgeoisie exploit to produce a profit.

If the power of the ruling class is challenged by, say, strikes and protests, the ruling class can use the law to criminalize those posing a threat, and media reporting will be manipulated to give the impression that the ruling class’s interests are those of the whole nation.

For Marxists, the appearance of consensus is an illusion; it conceals the reality of one class imposing its will on the rest of society.

Coercion – the use of the army, police, and other government agencies to force other classes to accept the ruling class ideology.

In contrast to functionalist theories of conflict, Marxist theories of conflict see conflict as endemic and momentous (Marx, 2000). Endemic conflict theories see conflict as an inherent aspect of social relations and likely to occur at many points over the course of a relationship.

Conflict is endemic to social relations, according to Marxism, because of the belief that society is based upon class relations and that those from different class groups have opposing interests.

This conflict is implicit in every interaction, and conflict does not only exist when it overtly manifests itself in actions.

Indeed, according to Marxists, weaker parties in class conflict may be powerless or too fearful to express conflict openly (Rowthorn, 1980).

Radical criminology is an example of conflict theory applied to the study of crime and the criminal justice system.

It emphasizes the power disparities and structural inequalities present in society, suggesting that laws and the criminal justice system primarily serve the interests of the dominant or elite groups, often marginalizing or criminalizing the less powerful groups.

Marxist vs. Functionalist Approaches to Conflict

While a functionalist may view the conflict between a supervisor and their employees as a symptom of something being wrong in the organization, a Marxist sociologist may view this conflict as a reflection of the reality of the relationship between the supervisor and his workers.

An absence of conflict would deny the inherent and fundamental divides underlying every structural divide in a Marxist society (Crouch, 2001).

Although both functionalism and Marxism disagree as to whether or not conflict is inherent to social interactions, both approaches agree that conflict is likely to bring about disorder and potentially radical social change.

In the case of Marxism, a momentous class conflict will lead to a catastrophic dissolution of class relations.

Indeed, in a way, some sociologists have called it ironic (Couch, 2001) that the ongoing social order according to Marxism resembles that of the functionalist social order. All institutions tend to attempt to maintain the current social order.

Conflict as Mundane

Conflict can also be seen as mundane — unlikely to lead to an upheaval and radical social change. According to institutionalized conflict theory, for example, in cases where institutions are separated from each other, it is unlikely that conflict will spread between institutions.

This desire to separate institutions emerged in response to the fascism and extreme movements arising out of the early-mid 20th century. In particular, political sociologists were interested in how different identities in conflict could run together or cross-cut each other (Lipset, 1964; Crouch, 2001).

When groups tend to hold more identities in conflict with another group, the conflict is more widespread and more intense.

For example, one would expect a society where most blacks were working-class Catholics and most whites were bourgeois protestants to be in greater and more intense conflict than one where a significant proportion of whites were working-class Catholics and so on.

Conflict, Micro-functionalism, and Applied Sociology

Micro-functionalism, in short, is a form of functionalism that stresses the separateness of social institutions. Micro-functionalism and applied sociology see conflict as mundane and exceptional.

Like functionalism, to microfunctionalists, conflict is unusual and pathological, and events such as strikes, divorces, crime, and violence are seen as indicators of malfunctioning but mundane malfunctioning.

Applied sociology, in its study of social problems such as marriage, poverty, and social movements, similarly sees conflict in these domains as pathological but unlikely to cause a great upheaval in greater society.

Critical Sociology and the Normalization of Conflict

Critical sociologists, such as feminist sociologists, see conflict as both endemic and mundane.

Generally, modern sociologists have seen conflict as both endemic and mundane and thus regarded as normal, leading to the disappearance of distinctive conflict sociology in recent years (Crouch, 2001).

Some critical sociologists, such as Ralf Dahrendorf, see conflict as not only endemic and functional but also capable of sustaining the social order in itself.

People innovated and created institutions, in Dahrendof’s approach (1972), by openly expressing and working out differences, difficulties, and contradictions.

This provides a radical contrast to structural functionalism in contending that the endemicity and mundanity — as opposed to the momentousness and exceptionality — of conflict preserves social structures rather than destroying them (Crouch, 2001).

Dahrendorf wrote from the cultural context of the conflicted history of Germany in the early-to-mid 20th century (Dahrendorf 1966). Postwar German sociologists, such as Habermas (1981), tended to stress open dialogue and communication in the working out of conflicts.

The works of Max Weber led to an increasing view of conflict as normalized (Weber, 1978). Weber, unlike Marx, did not reduce social relations to material class interests.

For him, conflict could be about any number of factors, from idealistic beliefs to symbolic orders, and none were necessarily any more important than the others (Crouch, 2001).

Conflict, Hostility, and Rationality/Irrationality

One way that sociologists propose to reduce conflict is through rational decision-making.

Weber (1978) argued that there are two types of rationality involved in decision-making processes.

The first, instrumental rationality, is directed at carrying out a specific goal, such as buying the best car with the money one has or deciding which topics to revise in order to pass an exam the next day.

The other type of rationality that Weber proposes is value rationality, when the objective is to conform to a vaguely defined set of values, such as when a religious person is trying to determine which among various ways of practice is most appropriate (Bartos and Wehr, 2002).

Sociologists consider the implementation of so-called rational decision-making to be effused with difficulties. Different individuals in different contexts can differ greatly in what they consider to be a rational choice .

However, sociologists agree that an action is rational if they consider the set of all relevant alternatives and assess every outcome correctly. Of course, this is unlikely in practice, and thus, few actors make decisions completely rationally.

One form of non-rational decision-making that sociologists consider to drive conflict is hostility. Conflicts that start rationally may end non-rationally. For example, a demonstration planned to let a group’s point of view be known may turn into a riot with rock throwing, the burning of cars, and looting.

Conflict and hostility have a reciprocal relationship: hostility can add fuel to and intensify conflict behavior, and conflict can intensify hostility. As conflicts continue and actors inflict harm on each other, participants may become motivated by desires beyond reaching their original goals, such as inflicting as much harm on the perceived enemy as possible (Bartos and Wehr, 2002).

Causes of Conflict

Generally, sociologists agree that conflict occurs due to groups having incompatible goals. However, these incompatible goals generally arise from several factors: including contested resources, incompatible roles, and incompatible values.

Contested Resource

Contested Resources draws three main categories that contested resources fit into: wealth, power, and prestige. Generally, wealth involves tangibles, such as money or land (Weber, 1978)

For example, children hearing the reading of the will of a deceased parent may suddenly come into conflict as they each believe that they deserve more money than was allocated to them.

The land has also been the source of a number of historical and contemporary conflicts, such as the conflict over East Jerusalem and Golan Heights between Israel, Palestine, and Syria (Bartos and Wehr, 2002).

An actor, according to Bartos and Wehr (2002), is powerful if they can coerce others into doing what they want by either promising to reward the action they desire or by threatening to punish them for failing to do so.

Power is generally unequally distributed, and parties in a power relationship can either dominate another or when one party has greater power potential than the other.

For example, after WWI, the Treaty of Versailles allowed the Allied powers to dominate Germany, requiring the country to pay heavy reparations to the Allied forces.

However, with the rise of Hitler, Germany was rearmed, increasing the country’s power potential. Thus, Germany was able to invade Austria and Czechoslovakia with impunity (Bartos and Wehr, 2002).

Prestige can also be a contested resource. Generally, those held in high respect (high prestige) have power, and those who have power are often held in high respect. Actors can have high prestige in certain situations and much lower prestige in others.

Incompatible Roles

Incompatible goals within an organization may arise out of incompatible roles. In the study of conflict, sociologists have emphasized vertical role differentiation, which assigns different roles to different positions within the power hierarchy.

Although many sociologists have studied the conflict arising from role differentiation, they have not generally agreed on whether role differentiation causes conflict.

In contrast, an organization can have role differentiation because members have partial and specific responsibilities, such as that of an engineer or a salesperson.

Although these roles are different in nature, those playing these rules do not refer to their relationships as those of superiors and subordinates (Bartos and Wehr, 2002).

Nonetheless, the roles of a horizontally integrated organization can still be incompatible.

For example, while an engineer may need to design a building that has beams visible from the atrium for structural stability reasons, this may contradict an architect or interior designer’s desire to have a clean, modern space without visible construction elements.

Incompatible Values

Groups separated from each other can also develop cultures that encourage incompatible values. This can happen due to separation, the values of communities and systems, or role differentiation.

Separation can occur on either the individual or group level. In either case, those separated from others develop unique sets of values, as their interactions with those in their ingroups are more intense than those in the outgroup.

One extreme example of isolation is cults. Cults can range from religious cults that may, for example, worship an ancient god to secular cults such as militias that oppose the government.

These organizations are generally small and have clearly defined beliefs, values, and norms that make them distinct from both other cults and mainstream cultures (Bartos and Wehr, 2002).

Those in groups also tend to form their own group identities, where they tend to value themselves more highly than others value them (Where, 2002).

This “ethnocentric” view — manifested today in the form of nationalism, for example (Chrristenson et al. 1975) — makes it easier for actions inflicted by other groups, however unintentional, to be seen as slights on the ethnocentric group (Bartos and Wehr, 2002).

Community and System Values

The American sociologist Talcott Parsons (1951) noted that in the creation of a social arrangement, actors have to decide whether the relationships among themselves are affective or affectively neutral; self or collectively oriented; universalistic or particularistic; specific or diffuse; ascription or achievement-oriented.

In making these decisions, societies adopt a set of cultural values.

Small tribal societies tend to adopt communal values, and large societies tend to adopt system values (Bartos and Wehr, 2002), which in themselves can lead to goal incompatibility (conflict) between societies.

Communal values emerge from face-to-face interactions and tend to be effective, collectivistic, particularistic, ascriptive, and diffuse, while system values tend to be the opposite.

Habermas (1987) considers these opposing communal and system values to be a potential source of social conflict. Advanced industrial societies, in Habermas’ view, tend to “colonize” and “deform” communal life.

Role Differentiation

Finally, role differentiation can directly create incompatible goals by means of nudging those with different goals to act in incompatible ways.

Roles can emphasize, as discussed previously, communal or system values.

For example, a pastor may emphasize love (an affective communal value) while a businessman may value efficiency — a system value — as more important than love in a business context (Bartos and Wehr, 2002).

Examples of Conflict

The cuban missile crisis.

During the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, the United States and the Soviet Union became close to nuclear war (Downing, 1992). The Soviet leader Kruschev installed medium-range missiles in Cuba.

The president of the United States had to negotiate the risks of reacting too strongly (nuclear war) with the drawbacks of responding weakly (increasing the influence of the Soviet Union).

That is to say, the United States and the Soviet Union had deeply conflicting interests: the Soviet Union wanted to increase its missile supremacy, and the United States wanted to curtail it (Bartos and Wehr, 2002).

Conflict and Individualism

Although some societies (such as Japan) can preserve some features of small groups, most wealthy, industrialized Western societies tend to encourage individualism, which encourages members of a society to formulate and develop their own values rather than accepting those of the larger groups (Bartos and Wehr, 2002).

Individual personality differences — such as extraversion, aggression, talkative, and problem-solving styles — may lead to the development of incompatible values.

One’s alignment with individualism or collectivism can also have a great impact on styles of decision-making in conflicts.

According to LeFebvre and Franke (2013), for example, participants with higher levels of individualism tended to favor rational approaches to decision-making, while those with higher levels of collectivism tended to value staying loyal to the interests of their ingroups.

A Conflict Theory of Sexual Stratification

Collins (1971) attempts to explain employment discrimination against women as the result of a sexual stratification system constructed from the perspectives of Freud and Weber.

In short, Weber argued that conflict emerges over a struggle for as much dominance over other groups as resources permit.

In the early 1970s, women tended to comprise a low number of professional and manual labor positions relative to men.

For example, in 1971, 18% of college professors were female, and 3.3% of lawyers and judges were. Historically, explanations for this imbalance involved a perceived lack of training and a low commitment to professional work in favor of child rearing (Collins, 1971).

However, as Collins demonstrates, neither of these is necessarily true.

Rather, Collins suggests that women belong to a lower class in a sexual stratification system. This is evidenced by how women in the 1970s who took on managerial roles tended to do so mostly in professions dominated by women (such as nursing).

Collins then goes on to theorize that men’s large size and high sexual and aggressive drives have led to the historical subjugation of women by men.

In this system, according to Collins (1971), women can be acquired as sexual property and thus subjugated to the role of “menial servants” (Levi-Strauss, 1949).

Bartos, O. J., & Wehr, P. (2002). Using conflict theory: Cambridge University Press.

Binns, D. (1977). Beyond the sociology of conflict. New York: St. Martin’s.

Collins, R. (2014). A Conflict Theory of Sexual Stratification1. Social Problems, 19(1), 3-21. doi:10.2307/799936

Crouch, C. J. (2001). Conflict Sociology. In N. J. Smelser & P. B. Baltes (Eds.), International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences (pp. 2554-2559). Oxford: Pergamon.

Downing, B. (1992). The military revolution and political change. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

Habermas, J. (1987). 8. The Tasks of a Critical Theory of Society. In Modern German Sociology (pp. 187-212): Columbia University Press.

LeFebvre, R., & Franke, V. (2013). Culture Matters: Individualism vs. Collectivism in Conflict Decision-Making. Societies, 3(1), 128-146. Retrieved from https://www.mdpi.com/2075-4698/3/1/128

Lévi-Strauss, C. (1949). L”efficacité symbolique. Revue de l”histoire des religions, 5-27.

Marx, K. (2000). Selected writings (2 ed.). Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

Weber, M. (1978). Economy and society: An outline of interpretive sociology (Vol. 1). Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press.

Wells, A. (1979). Conflict theory and functionalism: Introductory sociology textbooks, 1928-1976. Teaching Sociology, 429-437.

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Karl Marx Conflict Theory

Karl Marx is one of the most reputed philosophers of the 19 th Century. Born in 1818 in a middle-class family, Marx studied law in Bonn and Berlin and later plunged deeper into the ideas of Hegel and Feuerbach (Wheen, 2007). It is after receiving his doctorate in philosophy in 1841 from the University of Jena that he moved with his family to Paris where he became a radical revolutionary communist and teamed up with Friedrich Engels, another radical philosopher of his time.

They collectively authored the pamphlet “The Communist Manifesto” which was later published in 1848. In this pamphlet, Marx passionately asserted that all human history was dominated by class struggles. Furthermore, he predicted that they would culminate into the fall of capitalism and the rise of communism (Wheen, 2007).

Karl Marx later moved to London in 1849 where he broke his political and religious isolation to author Das Kapital, sometimes referred to as the “Bible of the working class” (Wheen, 2007). In this book, Marx developed very philosophical ideas related to the crises of the working class and the implicit struggles between laborers and owners of industries. The works and ideas of Karl Marx in his book Das Kapital were later edited by Engels after his death in 1833 in London (Wheen, 2007).

The ideas of Karl Marx established a school of thought known as Marxism, or what later came to be popularly known as the Marxist doctrine. His writings consummated the main ideological currents of the 19 th century. These included the classical English political economy, French socialism, and the French revolutionary doctrines of the time.

Marx, throughout his writing, had envisaged a social revolution that would see the fall of capitalism and the rise of socialism as a dominant ideology. These predictions later became evident after the death of Karl Marx in what was considered to be a process of socialization of labor. Wheen (2007) contends that this transformation would be possible to accomplish by the proletariat in sustained struggles with the bourgeoisie. This led to the development of ideas evident in Marxism and the conflict theory that form the bedrock of Marx’s works.

Karl Marx’s Conflict Theory

Conflict theory is a Marxist perspective and conceptualization of the way in which society is structured. This perspective depicts society as characteristically dominated by conflicts (Collins & Sanderson, 2008). Conflict is the determinant of how resources are allocated and who benefits the most from such allocations. Power is also acquired through conflict, and once such power is acquired, it is used to dominate the less-powerful and to benefit a few people.

Collins and Sanderson (2008) cited that the basic form of interaction in human society is not consensus but competition, which culminates into persistent conflicts. Each party or individual competes against perceived rivals with the goal of gaining an advantage and dominating the other.

The theory presented by Karl Marx underscores the fact that conflict, and not consensus, dominates designed mechanisms through different classes in the stratified society, interacts and relates to each other (Collins & Sanderson, 2008). The rich and the powerful use conflict to threaten their poor subjects and to maintain the status quo. The poor on the other hand, organize and use conflicts to push for a revolution that will overthrow the powers that are enjoying the privileges of capitalist structures. These tensions are thus sustained by the need of each group to have its interests dominate the structures and operations of the society.

Karl Marx contends that society is stratified into two main social groups. These are the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. The conflict between these two large social groups results in what Marx considered revolutionary change. The probable source of conflict between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie is the desire of the proletariat to have ownership of means of production, such as factories, power, land, and other valuable resources (Collins & Sanderson, 2008). The bourgeoisie, on the other hand, is not willing to relinquish these resources and give up their privileged positions of power and overwhelming riches and investments.

Karl Marx on Class and Class Conflict

According to Karl Marx, society is stratified into classes. The classes comprise the bourgeoisie, land-owners, and the proletariat. The propertied-upper-class is the minority, while the proletariats are the majority. Wood (2004) notes Marx’s dissection of the dominant features of each of these classes in most of his works.

For example, the bourgeoisie owns the means of production. This is due to the huge investments they have made into factories and machines in the industries. The landowners have rent as their primary source of income. The proletariats are owners of cheap labor which they offer in exchange for wages that they use for their basic subsistence (Collins & Sanderson, 2008).

The investment gives the bourgeoisies a lot of profit. Marx conceptualized the structure of the society in relation to the two major classes. He is focused on the inherent struggles between the proletariat and bourgeoisie which is the engine that pushes the occurrence of social change through revolutionary movements. In the understanding of Marxists, the class is defined by the level of wealth and power that one possesses (Wood, 2004). This power is used to sideline other classes from property and positions of power. Bourgeoisies use their power to serve their personal interests and amass more wealth at the expense of the proletariat.

These three different classes, in the understanding of Karl Marx, have different interests which pit them against each other (Wood, 2004). For example, the bourgeoisie is interested in safeguarding their investment in the industries, maximizing profits, and minimizing costs. This makes them engage the proletariats as laborers in the farms to achieve this objective at relatively minimal wages.

The proletariats, on the other hand, organize and mobilize themselves to collectively push for better wages, conditions of work and strive to overcome the repressive and exploitative forces of their masters in the industries and factories. Thus, they struggle to join hands and, through revolutionary movements, overthrow the bourgeoisie and control the industries and factories (Wood, 2004). These conflicting interests are what pit the social classes against each other. Conflicts, and not consensus, therefore, characterize the society as noted by Marx who had envisaged such a society founded on constant conflicts.

The struggle between the classes is likely to widen with time as the conditions of the laborers deteriorate further. This likely leads to the disintegration of the social structure. Collins and Sanderson (2008) asserted that conflicts between proletariats and bourgeoisies would translate into an industrial revolution. This would mark the triumph of the proletariats over the bourgeoisie, leading to increased access to capital and means of production by proletariats. This, according to Marxists, would mark the end of capitalism and the onset of socialism characterized by public ownership of the means of production.

The fall of capitalism and the bourgeoisie will, therefore, create a classless society as political power withers away due to the industrial revolution led by the proletariat (Wood, 2004). Thus, according to Marxists, class and class conflict are the forces behind societal transformation and not any other evolutionary processes. Radical revolutionary movements are likely to create a new social order in the society in which capitalism gives way to socialism as witnessed by the industrial revolutions that altered the social order in Russia in the 19 th century.

Karl Marx on Alienation

The philosophical ideas of Karl Marx on alienation were relevant in his radical reformation periods that saw the fall of capitalism (Otteson, 2011). Although these ideas were mainly considered to be philosophical in the 19 th century, alienation, as was espoused by Marx, since then has become a real social phenomenon in the 21st-century discourses that are propagated by contemporary social science scholars. The most outstanding aspect that Marx wrote about was economic alienation or alienated labor. According to the writings of Karl Marx, one of the front forces behind the conflict between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat is the fact laborers felt separated from the products of their own labor.

Marx asserted that in a capitalist society, workers were forced to remain on the job and work extra hard in order to earn and sustain themselves. He was against alienation which is caused by the strong forces of capitalism and predicted the rise of communism in which laborers will no longer work to live but live to work. With the fall of capitalism and alienation, wage-earning slaves will be free men who will work and enjoy the value of their labor.

In a capitalist society dominated by the bourgeoisie, the production capacity of an employee is 100%. However, the employee does not benefit directly from these products. He only earns 10% of the proceeds of his work, which he only uses for daily subsistence. In communism, one would directly benefit from 90% of the proceeds of his labor and only lose 10% which will be spent in other production processes.

Marx contended that in a capitalist society, workers are alienated even from the products that they produce. A laborer working in an industry that manufactures oil becomes so much alienated from the product that he or she produces to an extent that even in his or her own household he cannot afford the oil, yet he needs it and contributes significantly to its production.

The ideas of Karl Marx on alienation were very accurate considering that many labor union movements advocated for the welfare of workers in modern society (Otteson, 2011). There are employees who work in a milk processing plant, when ironically back at home they do not take the milk, not because they do not need it but because they cannot afford the milk.

Alienation as presented by Karl Marx in his conflict theory is an explanation of a situation in which man is separated from valued resources, opportunities, processes, and decisions in which his input ought to be reflected. The laborers at the time of Marx’s life did not have the opportunity to say a word on the number of wages they earned as compensation for their work.

Yet, their role in the industrial production processes was very significant. The masters determined the wages, the number of hours worked, when to grant leaves for recuperation, and so on. In fact, Marx was very concerned with how the surplus-value of products processed in the industries manned by workers benefited the workers themselves.

Marx asserted that in a capitalist society, the surplus-value only makes the rich richer as the workers become more impoverished. So worked up were the laborers that they were even alienated from their own families and private lives. They did not have time for recreation, family sessions, or other community forums. Marx sadly puts it in his writings of Das Kapital that leave or absence to workers in a capitalist system was hard to come by. But when such leaves were finally granted, they were only meant to help the workers recuperate and get extra strength not to benefit themselves but their masters who would then register a rise in surplus-value in industrial production.

Alienation, according to the writings of Karl Marx, can be seen to occur in four different ways. Contends that workers are alienated against the products that they produce; they do not benefit from them much, the production process especially through a specialized division of labor, from the community and from himself. In a capitalist industrialized society, a specialized division of labor is used to promote alienation under the disguise of enhancing efficiency and effectiveness in production.

Marx argues that an employee, concerned purely with the repair of broken-down machines in the industry producing oil, may not have enough experience with other production processes in the industry. The owners of the industry alienate them from this knowledge out of fear that such knowledge might empower workers to compete against the factory owners.

Karl Marx on Consciousness

Consciousness as defined by philosophers refers to how people or a person defines and understands himself (Wood, 2004). The concept of consciousness as presented in the writings of Karl Marx was basically bent towards understanding and identification with one’s class. It is this consciousness that would push the workers (proletariats) to join other proletariats and put forward a united battle against one common social group, the bourgeoisie.

Wood (2004) asserts that consciousness would enable workers to gain awareness that they all had shared experiences with other laborers, the bitter experience of alienation, exploitation, and oppression by the capitalist bourgeoisie (Wood, 2004). This consciousness would push the workers to rise against the bourgeoisie and launch protests and revolutionary movements that would lead to the fall of capitalism and the onset of communist ideologies.

Marx used the term “class consciousness” to illustrate this level of awareness on the part of the workers. There are scholars of Marxism who have argued that the concept of consciousness was used by Karl Marx to depict class as a very subjective dimension in a capitalist society.

The concept of consciousness forms the skeleton of Marx’s conflict theory. The proletariat will only rise to confront the bourgeoisie after the realization that all workers had common problems, all originating from the bourgeoisie. Such awareness by itself is inspiring enough to stir up revolution and protests against the bourgeoisie (Wood, 2004). Marx argued that it was false class consciousness that continued to sustain the forces and the influence of capitalist ideologies.

The proletariat had misrepresented their identity, and position in society and resigned to fate, preferring to remain in subordinate positions as the bourgeoisies took advantage of this and used their positions to exploit and dominate the economy (Wood, 2004). Members of subordinate classes, such as workers and peasants continued to suffer in the hands of the dominant bourgeoisie as a result of false-class consciousness. The upper class, on the other hand, has their consciousness right as they believe they should remain dominant owners of the means of production.

Karl Marx’s works have influenced and continue to influence sociological academia and studies in the field of economics. Although some of his ideas, like conflict theory, have been criticized by scholars since then in contemporary sociological theory, the conflict perspective remain to be a very popular sociological perspective, while Marx remains in academic records as one of the great scholars that contributed to the growth of sociology and its relevance in understanding human interactions and relationships in the society. Contemporary scholars, including critics of Marxism, continue to draw on his works to develop new concepts and ideas aimed at offering more accurate explanations of various phenomena in society.

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karl marx conflict theory essays

Conflict theory, as associated with Karl Marx , is a social theory that posits that society is in a state of perpetual conflict because of competition for limited resources.

Conflict theory holds that social order is maintained by domination and power, rather than by consensus and conformity. According to conflict theory, those with wealth and power try to hold on to it by any means possible, chiefly by suppressing the poor and powerless. A basic premise of conflict theory is that individualcs and groups within society will work to try to maximize their own wealth and power.

Key Takeaways

  • Conflict theory focuses on competition among groups within society over limited resources.
  • Marxist conflict theory sees society as divided along lines of economic class between the proletarian working class and the bourgeois ruling class.
  • Conflict theory views social and economic institutions as tools in the struggle among groups or classes, used to maintain inequality and the dominance of the ruling class.
  • Later versions of conflict theory look at other dimensions of conflict among capitalist factions and among various social, religious, and other types of groups.

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Philosophers and sociologists have long sought to use conflict theories to explain a wide range of phenomena, including wars, revolutions, poverty , discrimination, and domestic violence.

Marx’s version of conflict theory focused on the conflict between two primary classes. Each class consists of a group of people bound by mutual interests and a certain degree of property ownership. Marx theorized about the bourgeoisie, a group that represented members of society who hold the majority of the wealth and means. The proletariat is the other group, comprised of those considered working-class or poor.

With the rise of capitalism, Marx theorized that the bourgeoisie , a minority within the population, would use their influence to oppress the proletariat, the majority class. This way of thinking is tied to a common image associated with conflict theory-based models of society. Adherents to this philosophy tend to believe in a pyramid arrangement in terms of how goods and services are distributed in society. At the top of the pyramid is a small group of elites that dictate terms and conditions to the larger portion of society because they have an outsized amount of control over resources and power.

Uneven distribution within society was predicted to be maintained through ideological coercion; the bourgeoisie would force acceptance of the current conditions by the proletariat. Conflict theory assumes that the elite will set up systems of laws, traditions, and other societal structures in order to further support their own dominance while preventing others from joining their ranks.

Marx theorized that, as the working class and poor were subjected to worsening conditions, a collective consciousness would raise more awareness about inequality, and this would potentially result in revolt. If, after the revolt, conditions were adjusted to favor the concerns of the proletariat, the conflict circle would eventually repeat but in the opposite direction. The bourgeoisie would eventually become the aggressor and revolter, grasping for the return of the structures that formerly maintained their dominance.

Marx viewed capitalism as part of a historical progression of economic systems. He believed capitalism was rooted in commodities , or things that are purchased and sold. For example, he believed that labor is a type of commodity. Because laborers have little control or power in the economic system (because they don’t own factories or materials), their worth can be devalued over time. This can create an imbalance between business owners and their workers, which can eventually lead to social conflicts. He believed these problems would eventually be fixed through a social and economic revolution.

Adaptations of Marxist Conflict Theory

Max Weber, a German sociologist, philosopher, jurist, and political economist, adapted many aspects of Marxist conflict theory and later further refined some of Marx's ideas. Weber believed that conflict over property was not limited to one specific scenario. Rather, he believed that there were multiple layers of conflict existing at any given moment and in every society.

Whereas Marx framed his view of conflict as one between owners and workers, Weber also added an emotional component to his ideas about conflict. Weber's beliefs about conflict extend beyond Marx's because they suggest that some forms of social interaction, including conflict, generate beliefs and solidarity between individuals and groups within a society. In this way, an individual's reactions to inequality might be different depending on the groups with which they are associated; whether they perceive those in power to be legitimate; and so on.

Conflict theorists of the later 20th and early 21st centuries have continued to extend conflict theory beyond the strict economic classes posited by Marx, although economic relations remain a core feature of the inequalities across groups in the various branches of conflict theory. Conflict theory is highly influential in modern and postmodern theories of sexual and racial inequality, peace and conflict studies, and the many varieties of identity studies that have arisen across Western academia in the past several decades.

Examples of Conflict Theory

Conflict theorists view the relationship between a housing complex owner and a tenant as being based mainly on conflict instead of balance or harmony, even though there may be more harmony than conflict. They believe that they are defined by getting whatever resources they can from each other.

In the above example, some of the limited resources that may contribute to conflicts between tenants and the complex owner include the limited space within the complex, the limited number of units, the money that tenants pay to the complex owner for rent, and so on. Ultimately, conflict theorists see this dynamic as one of conflict over these resources.

The complex owner, however gracious, is fundamentally focused on getting as many apartment units filled as possible so that they can make as much money in rent as possible, especially if bills such as mortgages and utilities must be covered. This may introduce conflict between housing complexes, among tenant applicants looking to move into an apartment, and so forth. On the other side of the conflict, the tenants themselves are looking to get the best apartment possible for the least amount of money in rent.

The financial crisis of 2008 and the subsequent bank bailouts are good examples of real-life conflict theory, according to authors Alan Sears and James Cairns in their book "A Good Book, in Theory." They view the financial crisis as the inevitable outcome of the inequalities and instabilities of the global economic system, which enable the largest banks and institutions to avoid government oversight and take huge risks that only reward a select few.

Sears and Cairns note that large banks and big businesses subsequently received bailout funds from the same governments that claimed to have insufficient funds for large-scale social programs such as universal healthcare. This dichotomy supports a fundamental assumption of conflict theory, which is that mainstream political institutions and cultural practices favor dominant groups and individuals.

This example illustrates that conflict can be inherent in all types of relationships, including those that don't appear on the surface to be antagonistic. It also shows that even a straightforward scenario can lead to multiple layers of conflict.

Conflict theory is a sociopolitical theory that is heavily associated with Karl Marx. It seeks to explain political and economic events in terms of an ongoing struggle over finite resources. In this struggle, Marx emphasizes the antagonistic relationship between social classes, in particular the relationship between the owners of capital—whom Marx calls the “bourgeoisie”—and the working class, whom he calls the “proletariat.” Conflict theory had a profound influence on 19th- and 20th-century thought and continues to influence political debates to this day.

What Are Some Common Criticisms of Conflict Theory?

One common criticism of conflict theory is that it fails to capture the way in which economic interactions can mutually benefit the different classes involved. For example, conflict theory describes the relationship between employers and employees as one of conflict, in which the employers wish to pay as little as possible for the employees' labor, while the employees wish to maximize their wages. In practice, however, employees and employers often have a harmonious relationship. Moreover, institutions such as pension plans and stock-based compensation can further blur the boundary between workers and corporations by giving workers an additional stake in the success of their employer.

Who Is Credited With Inventing Conflict Theory?

Philosophers and sociologists have long used conflict theory to analyze societies.

Marxist conflict theory refers to conflict theory as put forward by the 19th-century political philosopher, who led the development of communism as a school of thought in economics. Karl Marx’s two most famous works are The Communist Manifesto , which he published in 1848; and Das Kapital , published in 1867. Although he lived in the 19th century, Marx had a substantial influence on politics and economics in the 20th century and is generally considered one of history’s most influential and controversial thinkers.

University of North Carolina, Pembroke. " Social Work Theories ."

OpenEd CUNY. " Theoretical Perspectives on Society: Karl Marx and Conflict Theory. "

Stanford University, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. " Karl Marx ."

OpenEd CUNY. " Theoretical Perspectives: Conflict Theory. "

University of Minnesota Duluth. " Sociological Theory: The Basics of Conflict Theory ."

Alan Sears and James Cairns. “ A Good Book, In Theory .” Pages 40-41. University of Toronto Press, 2015.

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Marxist Conflict Theory

According to the conflict theory, diverse groups in society are always competing fiercely for scarce power and resources, leading to the stronger oppress the weaker. Marx was preoccupied with one topic in the 19th century, a time characterized by profound disparity and fast technical and political development in Europe: what does it mean to be free? Marx built a whole theory of history related to the subject, laying the groundwork for the paradigm of conflict theory in sociology. Eventually, it forced the subject to examine concerns of dominance, and inequality, and how these factors might drive social change. By the start of the 20th century, his theories had influenced the organization and governance of more than half of the world.

Inequity was intolerable to Marx, and the majority of his works concentrated on the misery of the proletariat, and he thought that the class system needed to be reformed. The philosopher felt that social stratification was the determining force of modern society. The higher classes controlled the property, wealth, and industries, and the working classes had no option but to work under the conditions prescribed by the power elite (Garegnani, 2018). Marx believed that this structure only resulted in the affluent growing wealthier and the poor, who were exploited by the wealthy class, growing poorer (Alpidovskaya and Popkova, 2019). The only solution to rebalance class inequalities was for capitalism to be demolished and replaced with a socialist society that would lead to the equality of all people and meet the community’s requirements.

Marx claimed that people’s connections with the economy affected almost everything: thoughts, relationships, beliefs, and cultures. Karl believed that over time, society has transcended feudalism and developed into capitalism, with classes in society. The dominant class (bourgeoisie), which owns the resources for production (industrial plants and equipment), and the working class (proletariat), which is oppressed and whose labor is exploited (Claeys, 2018). This indicates that the power elite employs the proletariat to create products and services while taking profits. Capitalism is, therefore, built on the concept of private property ownership, which promotes the personal accumulation of capital (Garegnani, 2018). According to Marxists, this arrangement causes significant inequities between the two classes in society.

The issue of false consciousness is yet another concept invented by Marx. False consciousness is a state in which an individual’s views, values, or philosophy are not in their best interests (Claeys, 2018). In effect, the ruling class’s mindset, the bourgeoisie capitalists, is forced on the workers. Concepts like emphasizing competitiveness over teamwork, or treating hard effort as its incentive, plainly favor industrial proprietors (Claeys, 2018). As a result, employees are less likely to challenge their role in society and accept personal responsibility for current situations.

Marx suggested that false consciousness be substituted with class consciousness, or knowledge of one’s social standing, for society to transcend it. Rather than being a class in itself, the working class must become a class for itself to effect social change (Claeys, 2018). This implies that the class may become a proponent of social reforms rather than simply being an inactive stratum of the community. Only once society has reached this level of political consciousness will it be prepared for a mass movement or revolution.

As noted above, the likelihood of large-scale, intense conflicts depends on the degree of awareness of the subordinate classes of their true collective interests. At the same time, the probability and possibility of appropriate awareness depend on the degree of concentration of members of society in subordinate social groups (Claeys, 2018). The additional role was attributed to their access to mass communication, education, and the ability of such groups to develop their ideology, different from the ideology of the ruling elites. After the realization of the illegality of the existing model of distribution of social benefits, and has formed its ideology and consolidated around it, changes will take place (Claeys, 2018). Society will be capable of open confrontation with the ruling groups in the form of a social revolution, as the most large-scale and destructive form of social conflict.

Marx claimed that eventually, the oppressed working class would become conscious of their mistreated situation, unite, and overturn the system through an uprising, after which society would transform dramatically into a socialist or communist society. Marx believed that this emerging sort of society would eliminate individual property ownership and ensure that everyone was equal, hence eliminating social class divisions (Alpidovskaya and Popkova, 2019). Cuba, China, and the countries of the former Soviet Union are modern examples of communist states.

However, Marx’s vision of revolutionary actions did not happen after all. As civilizations developed and expanded, the working poor got more knowledgeable, learning particular job skills and reaching material well-being that Marx never imagined was feasible. Instead of greater oppression, they were shielded by organizations and labor legislation (Claeys, 2018). Skilled manufacturing workers and artisans ultimately began to earn wages comparable to, or even higher than, their middle-class counterparts.

Scholars and theorists highlight the financial crisis of 2008 and the following bailouts as an example of the actual conflict theory. They see the banking crisis as an unavoidable result of the global financial system’s disparities and imbalances (Chang and Andreoni, 2020). This allows the “too big to fail” banks and enterprises to bypass regulatory control and take a tremendous gamble that only benefits a small minority.

After that, huge banks and companies accepted bailout cash from the same authorities that declared a lack of finances for vast social initiatives, such as universal health care (Chang and Andreoni, 2020). This duality reinforces a core tenet of the conflict theory: leading groups and people benefit from major political institutions and social practices (Chang and Andreoni, 2020). This example demonstrates that conflict may exist in all sorts of relationships, even ones that do not appear to be adversarial on the outside.

Hence, according to Karl Marx, despite the systemic nature of the social relations developing between the members of society, they all contain a huge number of conflicting interests. This naturally leads to the fact that the social system itself generates interpersonal, intergroup, and interinstitutional conflicts. Moreover, social conflict is not only inevitable but also an extremely common feature of social systems. Having realized the illegality of the existing model of distribution of social benefits, having formed its ideology and consolidated around it, society will be capable of open confrontation. The confrontation will be in the form of a social revolution, as the most large-scale and destructive form of social conflict. Lastly, Karl Marx believes that capitalism is eroding the well-being of the vulnerable, which makes socialism and communism the best option to create balance and social equity.

Reference List

Alpidovskaya, M. L. and Popkova, E. G. (eds.) (2019) Marx and modernity: a political and economic analysis of social systems management . Charlotte: Information Age Publishing.

Chang, H. J. and Andreoni, A. (2020) ‘Industrial policy in the 21st century’, Development and Change , 51(2), pp. 324-351.

Claeys, G. (2018) Marx and Marxism . New York: Bold Type Books.

Garegnani, P. (2018) ‘On the labour theory of value in Marx and in the Marxist tradition’, Review of Political Economy , 30(4), pp. 618-642.

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The Conflict Theory by Karl Marx, Essay Example

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Sociologists have placed micro and macro theories, which all seek to explain the behavior observed in the social phenomena. They did this by studying how people interact and influence each other. In the discussion below, we focus on the relevance of conflict, symbolic interaction and functionalism theories.

The conflict theory by Karl Marx is based on the issues of social stratification and inequality. He states that the ruling class has a way of ensuring that the poor continue to provide the services that will make them maintain their status. According to him, the world is made up of only two classes of people, that is, the ‘haves ‘and the ‘have nots.’ A conflict arises when the laborers notice the need to fight for their rights by getting better working conditions and remunerations. However, it is always difficult as this is not the wish of the ruling class creating the rift further.

The symbolic interaction according to Herbert Mead is all about how people interpret social signs based on their background and culture. This theory calls for cultural relativism in the view of the fact that people come from different cultures, thus, understanding the social symbols differently. For instance, looking a person right in the eyes while talking can be interpreted as being honest in the western culture, while being observed as rudeness in some parts of Africa.

On the other hand, the functionalism theory by Emile Durkheim seeks to explain that the society is a system, which comprises of many interdependent parts. If one part malfunctions, then the rest will be negatively affected as well.

Having studied the three sociological theories, I feel that the Karl Marx’s theory is the most relevant in today’s circumstances. This is owing to the social inequalities the world is grappling with. The well-off people continue to become richer at the expense of the poor, causing inequality as one of the major social concerns nowadays.

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Home — Essay Samples — Social Issues — Capital Punishment — The Conflict Theory Perspective on Poverty


The Conflict Theory Perspective on Poverty

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The structural nature of poverty, power dynamics and poverty, implications for addressing poverty.

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karl marx conflict theory essays

Home / Essay Samples / Sociology / Critical Theory / Karl Marx And Critical Theory: Conflict Theory Of Modern Society

Karl Marx And Critical Theory: Conflict Theory Of Modern Society

  • Category: Sociology , Philosophy , Science
  • Topic: Critical Theory , Karl Marx , Theory

Pages: 4 (1866 words)

Views: 1893

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