Marxsaw the structure of society in relation to its major classes and the strugglebetween them as the engine of change in this structure. His was no equilibriumor consensus theory. The conflict was not deviational within society’sstructure, nor were classes functional elements upholding the system. Thestructure itself was a derivative of and ingredient in the struggle of classes.Marx’s was a conflicting view of the modem, 19th century, society. Marx’stheory lies in this historical method, that every stage of human developmentarises from the contradictions emergent in the preceding stage. Marketeconomics is not the running out of universal principles, neither is it theliable outcome of a given culture and a given context.
Instead, capitalism is astage in the development of human history, shaped by the inevitable productivetechnological forces unleashed by human inventiveness. Capitalism can also bedescribed as a systemic sensation driven by internal logic; the process ofcapitalism is unusual to capitalism, but it can be understood and explained bythe logic of the dialectical method. Therefore, in this essay, I will bearguing that the Marxian concept of social ‘class’ is relevant to thecontemporary political economy, yet it can be fundamentally different from, andpossibly cannot be derived from, the individual interests attributed by theutilitarian school and classical British political economy (Coser, 1977, KarlMarx-class theory. Available at: http://www.cardiff.
ac.uk/socsi/undergraduate/introsoc/marx6.html (Accessed: 3 January 2017). Fundamentalforms of socialism are avowed in their opposition to capitalism, for example,Marx, Blanqui, Lenin and their adherents. Socialism can be best seen as areaction to the perceived ill effects of capitalism was taking.
Marxists andcommunists, also known as ‘scientific socialists’, have viewed capitalism asfundamentally flawed and irredeemable. Capitalism is associated with classoppression, economic exploitation and inequality. History, according to Marxand Engels, would inevitably replace capitalism with socialism and then communismas capitalism reached a crisis stage. History moved forward according to thedialectical contradictions inherent in the economic base. The proletariat onlyhas their labour value to offer and they are exploited as the bourgeoisieexpropriate it and retain a surplus.
For the fundamentalist, capitalism must bereplaced, such reform was not enough. There was no way of reforming itinternally as political reforms such as universal franchise and trade unionrights had not been granted. The only way to progress was through a socialrevolution as the capitalist class would relinquish power voluntarily.Collective ownership and an end to private property would result, thus it wouldherald an era of equality and fraternity, the culmination, which is ultimatelycommunism. Syndicalists, during the 19th century, had also advocatedrevolutionary uprisings by workers who would take over the state, smashcapitalism and have government by the workers for the workers. As a result,trade unions would structure this form of governance. Onthe contrary, the most controversial element of Marx’s philosophy was hisapparent prediction that capitalism would inevitably be brought down by aviolent revolution.
Furthermore, this would take place in those countries wherecapitalism was at its most advanced stage. This is controversial for two mainreasons. The first is that the earliest Marxist revolution occurred in Russia,which was most definitely not an advanced capitalist country. The second is,revolutions did not occur in advanced capitalist countries such as Britain,Germany and France. If this element of Marx’s analysis was wrong, it could beargued, his whole theory must be flawed. The idea that historical change iscreated largely by the actions of social revolutionaries is known asvoluntarism, whereas those who suggest that historical forces are outside ourcontrol are usually known as determinists. Nevertheless, Marx found evidencefor the inevitability of revolution in a series of observations. He observedthat every historical economic system had contained the seeds of its owndestruction, which would grow, create conflict and ultimately destroy the verysystem that had produced them.
Capitalism was no exception to this law ofhistorical materialism. Hence, Marx saw revolution as the inevitable result ofthe progress of capitalism. Because capitalism was the most developed of allsystems empirically, it would produce the most exploited and therefore the mostrevolutionary class in history.
Finally, Marx claimed that this finalrevolution would be underpinned by the influence of philosophers who wouldbreak away from the ruling class, which was their natural home, and join thesocialist movement. For example, in his work with Engels, ‘The CommunistManifesto’, Marx stated, “The proletarians having nothing to lose buttheir chains. They have a world to win.” (Instructorand Johnson, B. (2003) Karl Marx’stheories: Class differentiation and revolution, socialism & capitalism -video & lesson transcript.Available at: http://study.com/academy/lesson/karl-marxs-theories-class-differentiation-and-revolution-socialism-capitalism.
html(Accessed: 3 January 2017). Thus, Marx had called for a workers’revolution where the proletarians would rise up against the bourgeoisie,overthrowing capitalism. A social class is a group of people sharing similarsocio-economic position in terms of ownership of wealth and occupation. Forsocialists, classes are the main actors in history and the source of economicand social change. ‘The Communist Manifesto’ supports this view with itsopening line stating, “the history of all hitherto existing society is thehistory of class struggles.” (Coser, 1977, KarlMarx–class theory. Available at: http://www.
cardiff.ac.uk/socsi/undergraduate/introsoc/marx6.html, Accessed: 3 January 2017) This means that ever since humansociety emerged from its primitive and relatively undifferentiated state, ithas remained essentially divided between classes who clash in the pursuit ofclass interests. For Marx, a class was determined by the mode of production.Under capitalism, it is essentially a dichotomy, a division between twoclasses; the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.
The latter have only their labourto sell, for a wage. The relationship between the two is exploitative, thelabourer workers harder than he is paid, the capitalist keeps the ‘surplusvalue’ of his labour, in other words, makes a profit. This was possible becausethe upper class was able to control the state in its own interests. A classstruggle would inexorably drive the pattern of history towards revolution andthe emergence of a fairer society. For Marxists, class conflict is the motor ofhistory and the property-less proletariat will inevitably be driven tooverthrow the bourgeoisie property-owning capitalists through a violentrevolution.
Marx believed ‘bourgeois ideology’ pervaded society and preventedthe working-class from recognising their own exploitation. For Lenin in Russia,the capitalist proletariat would never reach true ‘class-consciousness’, thatis the realisation that they belonged to a certain class, without theassistance of an intelligentsia, critically thinking persons. For Marx and hisfollowers, a revolution would herald a classless communist society, a realdemocracy. By emancipating itself from capitalist exploitation, theworking-class emancipate itself from its own class identity and become fullydeveloped human beings. This occurs through a network of communication, wherethey have become aware of their common fate.
Therefore, individuals become partof a cohesive class that consciously articulates their common interests, asCarlyle put it, ‘Great is the combined voice of men’ (Coser,1977, Karl Marx-class theory.Available at: http://www.cardiff.ac.uk/socsi/undergraduate/introsoc/marx6.html, Accessed: 3 January 2017). Moreover, Marx’s view of a class hasramifications for his view of the state. Marxists believe that the state is notneutral and is working in the best interests of all, but rather an agent ofclass oppression.
Marx’s dichotomous view of the class structure did recogniseno man’s land of the middle classes but he believed that their obligation tosell their labour would mean that this intermediate class would become part ofthe mass proletariat. Conversely, SocialDemocrats’ concept of class conflict may be more relevant to t the contemporarypolitical economy because, for social democrats, socialism is associated with anarrowing of divisions between the middle and working class brought about bypolicies of state intervention that redistribute wealth and give workersrights. This will ensure class harmony without the need for a violentrevolution and the collapse of the state and capitalism. By the late 19thcentury, enthusiasm for popular revolution diminished as the working-classintegrated into society with the suffrage extended. The middle-class did notbecome part of a massive proletariat. Instead, deindustrialisation, a processof ’embourgeoisement’ of the working-class and an erosion of the old upperclasses have left the majority of people as either lower or upper middle-class.Additionally, many believe a managerial revolution has taken place whereby thetraditional structure of the capitalist world has metamorphosed as giantnational and international firms have led to a fissure between ownership andactual control of industry.
The former has dispersed through share ownership,whereas the latter are in the hands of professional managers. As a result,living conditions for the average person are certainly better than they werewhen Marx and Engels wrote ‘The Communist Manifesto’ in 1848. Therefore, moderncapitalism had resulted in a more technologically skilled workforce. However,the rise of food banks, zero hour contracts, austerity cuts and a rising wagegap between the richest and the poorest have meant that a depressed minorityform a sizeable subclass or underclass in Britain today. A feature of socialism that is related to collectivism iscommon ownership of the means of production and distribution.
Common ownershipwas brought about in England in the 1640s and 1650s when the Levellers boughttracts of land in the south of England and began to farm collectively withequal distribution of output. However, it was the development of capitalismthat brought about a more complex set of views linking to the evils of privateproperty and the virtues of common ownership. Marxists are against the conceptof private property because they argue that the earth is given to humankind ingeneral. No individual has the right to claim that any part of it belongs tohim or herself. Moreover, claiming private property deprives someone else ofits use. Property increases inequality, especially between those who have andthose who lack property. Furthermore, the ownership of property, particularlyland and capital goods, gives rise to the exploitation by property owners ofthose who lack property.
On the contrary, common ownership provides a number ofgood outcomes. For example, it imposes economic equality. Secondly, since manysocialists see collectivism as natural, common ownership creates or recreates anatural state of society. It’s also possible to direct commonly owned propertyto serve the interests of the whole community, not just those of fortunateowners of property. Among socialists, the value of common ownership, along withequality, social justice and collectivism, has declined in the modern era. Thefailure of the socialist ‘experiments’ that were introduced in the USSR, Chinaand Cuba in the 20th century served to destroy faith in the idea of common ownershipby the state. Socialists usually modify their attitude to common ownership,seeing it as a complement to private property rather than a replacement for it.
Marx’s theory ofBase & Superstructure shows that religion & media come about because ofthe material world as a means of production. For Marx, ideology is a beliefsystem that distorts people’s perception of reality in ways that serve theinterests of the bourgeoisie. He argues that the class that controls economicproduction also controls the production and distribution of ideas in society,through institutions such as the church, the education system and the media. InMarx’s view, religion operates as an ideological weapon used by the bourgeoisieto justify the suffering of the poor as something inevitable and God-given.Religion misleads the poor into believing that their suffering is honourableand that they will be rewarded in the afterlife.
For example, in Christianity,it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for arich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Such ideas create a falseconsciousness, which is a distorted view of reality that prevents theproletariat from acting to change their situation. Correspondingly, Lenindescribes religion as ‘spiritual gin’ (Webb,Westergaard, Trobe, Townend, 2016, p.8) – an intoxicant doled out to themasses by the bourgeoisie to confuse them and keep them in their place.According to Lenin, the bourgeoisie uses religion cynically to manipulate themasses and keep them from attempting to overthrow the bourgeoisie by forming a’mystical fog’ (Webb, Westergaard, Trobe,Townend, 2016, p.8) that obscures reality.
Religion also legitimates thepower and privilege of the dominant class by making their position seemdivinely ordained. For example, the 16th-century idea of the Divine Rights ofKings was the belief that the King is God’s representatives on earth and isowed total obedience. Disobedience is not just illegal, but a sinful challengeto God’s authority. Furthermore, Marx also sees religion as the product ofalienation. Alienation exists in all class societies but is more extreme undercapitalism. Under capitalism, workers are alienated as they do not own whatthey produce and have no control over the production process, and thus nofreedom to prompt their true nature as creative beings. Alienation reaches apeak with the detailed division of labour in the capitalist factory, where theworker continuously repeats the same task, devoid of all meaning or skill.
Inthese dehumanising conditions, the exploited sees religion as a form ofconsolation. Marx states that religion ‘is the opium of the people. It is thesigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world’ (Webb, Westergaard, Trobe, Townend, 2016, p.9).
Religion undertakes as an opiate to dull the pain of exploitation. But just asopium covers pain rather than treating its cause, so does religion covers theunderlying issue of exploitation. Because religion misleads the view of theworld, it can offer no solution to earthly misery. Instead, its promises of theafterlife create an illusion that distracts attention from the true source ofthe suffering, namely capitalism. Overall,Marx’s importance on class conflict as directing the dynamics of social change,his awareness that change was not random but rather the consequence of aconflict of interests, and his view of social relations based on power allcontributed to the first scale of the class conflict. However, time and historyhave quashed many of his assumptions and predictions. Capitalist ownership andcontrol of production have been divided.
There are joint stock companiesforming most of the industrial sector, which are now almost operated bynon-capital owning managers. Whereas workers have not grown homogenous but aredivided and subdivided into different skill groups. Class strength has beenweakened by the development of a large middle-class and considerable socialmobility. Yet there has been a social levelling and an increasing emphasis onsocial justice.
Bourgeois political power has gradually weakened with anincrease in worker orientated statute and of labour-orientated parties, andwith a narrowing of the rights of and privileges of capital ownership. Finally,the firmest manifestation of the conflict between workers and capitalists, thestrike, has been institutionalised through collective bargaining regulation andthe regulation of strikes.