Sociology 250

Notes from September 14, 1999

Marx and Marxism

A. Introduction

Marx and Marxian followers of Marx (including Engels, Lenin, Luxemburg and many others) developed approaches that are important in sociology. Some schools of thought such as conflict and critical theory, theories of socialism, and some contemporary schools of social analysis (Marxist feminism, Canadian political economy), developed positively out of the Marxian tradition. In contrast, some approaches to sociology developed negatively out of Marxian thought, by attempting to negate or counter Marx, or to complement Marx and show the incompleteness of his analysis. Further, Marxist thought has been important on a global scale, constituting a theoretical basis for the political and economic systems of the Soviet Union, China and several other countries for many years.

1. Enlightenment

Marx was one of the first social analysts to work out the notions of the Enlightenment writers, combining the philosophic and empirical tradition into a overall structure of thought that makes theoretical sense and is empirically rooted. (See Zeitlin and Seidman). Marx's theoretical approach combines observation and reason, and many of his conclusions can be subjected to empirical tests. While there are shortcomings in his theoretical system, it is among the most impressive that has been developed in western thought. Marx's system combines a philosophical approach (the dialectic) with an analysis of history (materialism) and politics (socialism) and integrates these into an overall system of political economy, rooted in the contributions of Smith and Ricardo. This theoretical structure provides an explanation for the economic, social and political structures of modern society and for changes in those structures.

2. Scope

The broad scope of Marx's model makes it useful for investigating and analyzing a wide variety of problems, over many periods of time, and in many countries. There are many questions and hypotheses raised by Marx's scheme, and a wide variety of testable propositions, including falsifiable ones. While the scope of Marxian theory may not be as universal as some have claimed, this theory is an example of a model that attempts to be universal. Judged by the standards of a rigorous model that is empirically based, internally logical and having wide scope, Marx's theoretical structure stands as one of the major, if not the major, sociological approach. Among the shortcomings in scope is Marx's limited analysis of patriarchal structures and the role of women, and the limited and incomplete analysis of societies outside Europe and North America. However, as will be noted later this semester, even when discussing these issues, the Marxian approach provides many insights.

3. Methodology

The methods of social analysis developed by Marx set high standards for social research. Even though Marx did not have access to modern techniques such as survey research, mathematical or statistical analysis, or other techniques that are regarded as providing the basis for sound research, he made extensive use of empirical data wherever possible. His social analysis was constructed by employing the use of reason following close examination of issues and problems in the social world. One of Marx's first articles showed the injustice faced by Prussian peasants who were prosecuted for "stealing" fallen wood. Marx's major work, Capital, contains detailed examinations of British industry and working conditions. The empirical findings are turned into theoretical understandings through a process of abstraction. This is set in an historical framework, and the quantitative approaches of Marx are developed with an understanding of broad historical developments. From the quantitative and qualitative observations Marx made himself, or which he took from others, he abstracted various concepts which were combined into a massive theoretical analysis. Marx's analysis may appear to be primarily theoretical, but at each stage of this analysis, Marx refers to the social world, never losing sight of his goal of attempting to understand, explain, and change this world. Marx's method involves beginning from general aspects of society that are observed, abstracting from these and building a theoretical structure, and then moving back to examine society using this structure. This may go through several stages, back and forth between the empirical and the theoretical. Many Marxists consider this analysis scientific in nature.

B. Marx's Life

1. Early Life (1818-1843)

Karl Marx (1818-1883) was born in Trier, Prussia of a middle class Jewish family. His father was a lawyer and the family was able to provide Marx with a good education. Marx first studied law in Bonn, and later moved to Berlin to study philosophy, in particular the philosophy of Hegel. After completing a doctoral degree in 1841, for political reasons he was not able to obtain a teaching post at a German university. Instead, he took up journalism, and this is where he first came into contact with concrete political issues (such as the "theft" of dead wood) which moved him in a political direction and shaped his later analysis.

2. Paris and Belgium (1843-1849)

In 1843, at age 25, Marx went to Paris, and later to Belgium. In these places, Marx came in contact with many new ideas, especially some of the French socialists, and also the English and Scottish political economists. Marx began to collaborate with Friedrich Engels (1820-1895) in mid-1844. Engels was a lifelong collaborator with Marx, and the Marxian approach is sometimes considered to be a combined approach of Marx and Engels. Engels edited several of Marx's works and completed some of the works that Marx did not complete before his death in 1883.

In Paris, Marx began to modify his early philosophical position, laying out much of his early analysis in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts (1844). The Manuscripts are often regarded as most important for showing a humanistic side of Marx (the early Marx), as opposed to the harder and more scientific political economic analysis of his later years (the late Marx of Capital). Although these manuscripts did not have all the details of Marx's theory worked out, they contain important outlines and discussions of Marx's model. Much of the rest of his writings can be regarded as a development of the ideas in the Manuscripts. In particular, Marx's writings on alienation (see Hadden, pp. 76-78) are primarily drawn from the Manuscripts Unfortunately, the Manuscripts were not published in English until the 1930s, and were not integrated into sociology until the 1950s and 1960s. In collaboration with Engels, Marx wrote a short pamphlet outlining the doctrines of communism. This was published as The Communist Manifesto in 1848, a decisive year in Europe, with revolts in many parts of Europe. With the publication of this manifesto, Marx became a major figure and active participant in socialist and left-wing politics in Europe. The Manifesto ends with "The workers have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Workers of all lands, unite." (Berlin, p. 168). See Quote 19.

3. Later Years (1849-1883)

The third phase of Marx's life began in 1849, when at age 31 he moved to London, England. Marx remained in England for the rest of his life, there working mainly as a scholar. While he did take part in some political activities, the rest of Marx's life was primarily devoted to study and writing, with Marx working out an analysis of capitalism. This was first accomplished in outline form in the Grundrisse (1859) or the Outlines of the Critique of Political Economy, and then in much fuller form in Capital or, in the original German, Das Kapital. Only the first volume of Capital was published in Marx's lifetime (1867), with the other volumes edited and later published by Engels (Vol. II in 1885 and Vol. III in 1894). Many of the other writings of Marx and Engels also derive from this period, and they contain extensive discussions of political economic theory and the analysis of capitalism.

In these later writings, for which he is most noted, Marx dealt with the labour theory of value, surplus value, exploitation, economic crisis, concentration and the falling rate of profit. These are the aspects of Marx's theory that are described in Hadden, pp. 55-84. At the same time, Marx's work must be looked at as a whole, with the early influences representing important influences on his later works. Marx's method and the purpose and direction of his analysis is guided by his early contacts with various theories, writers, and events. For example, if one is to understand Marx's analysis of social inequality, these influences must be recognized, because it was through restating, developing, and modifying these ideas that Marx was able to develop a systematic model of capitalism, the class structure of capitalism, and the dynamics of this economic system.

C. Influences on Marx and Marxian Thought

The major influences on Marx are (i) his early contacts through his family, (ii) German philosophy, specifically the philosophical approaches of Feuerbach and Hegel, (iii) the writings of the French socialists (Saint-Simon and Proudhon), and (iv) English and Scottish political economy (Smith and Ricardo). Marx not only synthesized these, but developed a new system of thought from them. (Rattansi, p. 49). These influences are examined in this section.

1. Family and Friends

Some of Marx's initial ideas concerning the importance of egalitarian society and individual freedom came from the French revolution through his family and friends. Marx learned that people are both good and rational, and of the possibility of development of a more perfect society. (Grabb, p. 15). Marx could well have missed some of these ideas if he had grown up in a different type of family. It is important to recognize this influence because Marx was growing up in Germany, where the level of economic and political development lagged well behind that in France and Britain. Culturally German society was regarded as among the leaders in Europe, if not the leader, but German society lagged far behind Britain in terms of economic and political development at the time Marx was in his youth.

For Marx, ideas from the Enlightenment helped shape his vision of the nature of a future society. In Marx's view, societies in the past had sometimes been egalitarian and just, and in the future there would also be the possibility of a communist society where injustice would be eliminated and people would govern themselves. While Marx did not initially connect these ideas with his analysis of private property, Marx would later argue that an egalitarian and just society could come about only with the abolition of private property. Historically, Marx would argue that the emergence of an economic surplus and property created class societies and only if private property is abolished would the conditions to create a communist society exist. The great productive power of capitalism, the increasing wealth of society, and the development of the proletariat (working class) created this possibility. Hadden (pp. 42-3) notes that the idea that humans could create a better world, may come from Comte, since such an idea was not present in the writings of Hegel.

2. Hegel

In Germany, Hegel's views were dominant in the academic sphere at the time when Marx attended university (Hadden, p. 41), and Marx became part of a group called the Young Hegelians. Marx later rejected Hegelian views because they concerned only the abstract world of the mind and spirit, and did not consider these ideas as coming from the real, material world as being applicable to real conditions (Grabb, pp. 16-17, Hadden, p. 40). From Hegel, Marx took the view that society is subject to continual change, the importance of the study of history, human labour as the essence of humanity, and the dialectical method. Marx applied this method not just to ideas but to politics and the study of the other conflicting forces.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (German, 1770-1831) was an important German writer and philosopher at the time when Marx was attending university. Hegel's analysis is important within the study of philosophy itself. (Marx: 1818-1883. Engels: 1820-1895). Hadden (p. 41) notes that Hegel was influenced by Enlightenment thought, emphasizing reason, but at the same time having a conservative approach, looking on tradition and culture as important aspects of society.

a. Idealism. One of the main aspects of Marx's struggle with Hegel's approach concerns the debate between idealism and materialism. While this debate may be irrelevant today, it was a highly contentious one in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In its philosophic approach, idealism sees reality as consisting in, or depending upon minds or ideas. As an historical explanation, idealism locates the primary or sole motor of historical change in ideas or consciousness. As an ethical system, idealism projects a higher or better set of ideas or forces as a way of judging or rationalizing action.

In contrast, materialism is a system of thought that views the social as being based on how humans relate to the biological and physical world and how they interact with each other. Society, social organization, and changes in these, are constructed and caused by what happens in the physical and material world, in social relationships in this world, and more specifically, in the labour process. Hadden (middle of p. 48) explains this as follows:

History is the product of the tension between two distinctively human set of relations: our relations with nature, how we work and produce with respect to the natural materials which are necessary for making the things we need; and the relations in society in which we are organized to carry out all our practical activity.

While not all sociology can be considered materialist, the view that ideas are a human product, and are not natural, nor are they the result of revelation or some other force, would appear to be common to most sociology.

Idealist ways of thinking are, in some ways, very similar to religious ones, with the supernatural taken out. Hegel used the term Spirit (without the religious connotations) and argued that "our history is the story of the gradual historical realization or manifestation of reason or spirit in the world." (Hadden, p. 42). While the result of Marx's struggle with Hegel was to lead Marx to adopt a materialist approach, Marx did not "deny the existence and/or the causal efficacy of ideas ... but the autonomy and/or explanatory primacy attributed to them." (Bottomore, Dictionary, p. 219 and 324).

For Hegel, there are various epochs in history and it is the dominant set of ideas of the period that characterize the epoch. Ideas themselves develop, through a dialectical process, and new ideas characterize the next stage of the historical process. Hegel's philosophy can be considered to be idealism, with "reality as consisting in, or depending upon ... minds or (particular or transcendent) ideas." (Bottomore, Dictionary, p. 218). Historical idealism "locates the primary or sole motor of historical change in agency, ideas or consciousness." (Bottomore, Dictionary, p. 218).

For Hegel, it was important for individuals to be in tune with these ideas. "The Spirit approaches its perfection by gradually attaining to greater self-consciousness with every generation: and the highest point of its development is reached by those who at any time see themselves most clearly in their relation to their universe, that is, in the profoundest thinkers of every epoch." (Berlin, p. 59). This could be considered to be a profoundly conservative philosophy, in that the divisions were to be overcome, and freedom would be characterized by agreement among all with the ideas of the era. People must come into tune with the ideas, rather than the reverse. Hegel's views can be looked on as a reaction to the enlightenment and the French Revolution. Hegel was concerned with the disorganization, and "fragmentation of personal and social life produced by the division of labour and social differentiation, and [was concerned] to recreate a coherent personal experience by the formation of an integrated community." (Rattansi, p. 27).

While Hegel's ideas could be interpreted in a more progressive way, Hegel himself supported the Prussian monarchy and establishment. He argued that it was only "philosophically educated officials that possessed a developed insight into the unity of subjective spirit (the individual human being) and objective spirit (the state). In contrast, the young Hegelians held that all citizens could acquire this, a much more radical view. It was these young Hegelians who influenced Marx, claiming that the "rational was real." This meant that the "actual" is full of inconsistencies and unreason, and a radical transformation would be necessary in order to create institutions that are in accord with reason. In opposition to this, the conservative wing of Hegelians, argued that actual institutions were ideal and "only the real was rational." (Berlin, p. 64)

One of the major influences on Marx was this idealism of Hegel, but it was an influence in a negative way. Marx developed a materialist view, in an attempt to counter the Hegelian view. For Marx, Hegel's error was to regard ideas as the motivating force of history, and the means by which society changed. Marx wrote many critiques of Hegel, and in the process developed the opposite view, that it is ideas which result from the material reality, and ideas change as this material reality changes. (See Quote 12 in Appendix).

b. History. The second element of Hegel's thought that was important was emphasis on history. This formed part of the Hegelian method and became an essential feature of the Marxian method. For Hegel, human society does progress, and one must have an historical view in order to see how human and social progress occur. Berlin notes that Hegel considered Germanic culture a higher and perhaps ultimate synthesis of its predecessors, especially the cultures of Greece and Rome, and "the most perfect political framework yet attained by men consisted in the highest incarnation to date of western values the modern i.e. the Prussian State." (Berlin, p. 64). This demonstrates part of the romantic-conservative aspect of Hegel's view, with an emphasis on the importance of state and nation.

While Marx again disagreed with the notion that such historical development occurs through the development of ideas, and he did not consider the state as it was composed in Prussia as the best form, the notion of stages in history and historical progress is important for the Marxian view of history. Society does progress, and the progress can continue until a more perfect society, communism, is reached. Unlike Hegel though, for Marx progress comes from material and social factors class struggles, technological change, and human labour.

c. Change and the Dialectic. The manner in which change occurs is another important methodological contribution of Hegel's thought. This is the notion of the dialectic, or the contradictory aspect of change. For Hegel "Reason is not, as the Philosophes had regarded it, a mere abstraction from the real; it is an immanent force which determines the structure and development of the universe. ... The Idea is not an unchanging essence, but is continually developing and becoming." (Zeitlin, p. 50). That is, for Hegel, change is always occurring, and perfection would never seem to be reached.

One side of change is quantitative change "slow, organic growth determined by immanent rational laws. Between phases, however, as in the transition from the acorn to the oak tree, there is a kind of 'dialectical leap' from one quality (acorn) to another (oak tree). This takes place when the quantitative accumulation of slow organic change reaches a nodal point at which an increment produces a qualitative change." This is Hegel's "negation of the negation" where "a particular thing is "negated," it is superseded by a new force, which continues to develop until it, too, engenders its own negation." (Zeitlin, pp. 50-51)

For Hegel, society progresses through historical struggles. The consciousness of people in any epoch is best expressed in their religion, and early human religions limited human freedom. With the notion of a human god, or a spirit, greater freedom becomes possible. However, a particular religion can encounter opposition from ideas, ideas that may arise out of the religion itself. Religion and cultures, and whole societies may decline, there may be wars and death, but out of these historical struggles will come a new and higher principle of freedom, a closer approximation of the truth, a higher degree of insight into the nature of freedom. (Bottomore, Dictionary, p. 198).

For Hegel, the dialectic in history was the "history of thought." (Berlin, p. 59). Marx took the dialectic and contradiction and used these to explain the material and social worlds and changes in these developments that Hegel discussed in ideas and thought. For Marx, the history of thought, ideas, and ideology became a reflection of the developments in the material world, rather than the reverse. Thus some talk of Marx taking Hegel's dialectic and standing it on its head. As an example of dialectical explanation, consider Quote 2. There Marx shows how workers create wealth but how this devalues and subordinates labour to the domination of capital.

d. Human Labour. Marx notes that "Hegel's standpoint is that of modern political economy. He conceives labour as the essence, the self-confirming essence of man." (Giddens and Held, p. 12) For Hegel, labour is a "central feature of human existence; it is the instrument through which man comes to know and understand his world; it is the form in which he acquires self-consciousness as well as transform his environment. ... labour becomes in his doctrine the middle term between subject and object. Work ... is seen as a liberating activity ." (Rattansi, pp. 28-29).

Marx notes that Hegel views only the positive side of labour, and Marx shows both sides (as in Quote 2). Much of the Marxian analysis is concerned with the role of human labour, first in defining humanity (as opposed to non-human animals), and in developing society. In looking at class relationships, the use of labour and the products of labour become key. Marx showed both the positive and negative aspects of labour in the Manuscripts and much of Capital. For Marx, human potential and human nature is defined by human labour as purposeful and creative human activity that transforms nature into useful objects. This purposeful and creative activity is the essence of humanity, and the means by which humanity can achieve freedom. The problem in capitalism is that much of this potential is denied to workers and turned against them.

In summary, Marx is strongly indebted to Hegel, partly as an impetus to developing his own ideas, and partly in reaction to Hegel. In addition, some of Marx's ideas are taken more or less straightforwardly from Hegel.

3. Feuerbach

After Marx came into contact with Hegel's philosophy, he began to study other approaches. The writings of Ludwig Feuerbach (Bavaria, 1804-1872) became influential on Marx and the other young Hegelians in 1841 when The Essence of Christianity was published. Giddens (p. 3) notes that Hegel "sees the 'real' as emanating from the 'divine.'" In contrast, Feuerbach "argues that the divine is an illusory product of the real. ... 'thought proceeds from being, not being from thought.'" This means that 'God' is a projection of the inward nature of humans. For Feuerbach, God exists as humans are alienated from themselves, and the God of Christianity is an illusion. Feuerbach said he was not an atheist, but said that religion must be "replaced by humanism, whereby the love formerly directed towards God will become focused on man, leading to a recovery of the unity of mankind, man for himself." (Giddens, p. 3). "Religion is a projection of human wishes and a form of alienation." (Bottomore, Dictionary, p. 171).

While Marx rejected Feuerbach's views as inadequate, Marx's view of materialism may have come partially from Feuerbach. One of the problems of the views of Feuerbach was that they were not historical or dialectical. Another was that they tended to be somewhat mechanically materialist, ignoring the active and creative side of people. Marx comments that materialist philosophers treat humans as if they were no more than passive, determined objects, whereas Marx viewed the world as created by humans through their theoretical-practical activity. (Zeitlin, p. 97). Marx used the materialism of Feuerbach along with the historical, dialectical and political approach of Hegel, to begin to analyze the state and politics.

4. Saint-Simon and Proudhon

Another influence on Marx came through the writings of French 'socialists' such as Saint-Simon and Proudhon. Claude Henri Saint-Simon (French, 1760-1825) had some objections to the conservative reaction against the Enlightenment, and "had great faith in the power of reason to change the world." (Zeitlin, p. 75). At the same time, he did not want conflicting principles within society, viewing conflict as a destructive force. He wanted to preserve a social order that was "international, organic, hierarchical, and stable, ruled by a spiritual and temporal elite and unified by an international religion." (Zeitlin, pp. 75-6). He believed that "the study of social phenomena should employ the same scientific techniques as were used in the natural sciences." (Ritzer, p. 14) so adopted the new, more scientific and empiricist approach to knowledge, believing that it could be applied by an educated elite. He thought that social reforms were necessary, and these could be carried out by this elite, producing a better society. Among the "socialist" reforms he called for was central planning of the economic system. His followers called for the emancipation of women and the abolition of individual rights to inherit property.

Marx called Saint-Simon an utopian socialist, in that he did not see the progressive role of the proletariat, and did not look for class conflict. Rather, he thought that superior, rational ideas would improve society. Saint-Simon expresses some of the ideas of the emergent bourgeoisie, who thought that they carried the key to a better society, and have the power to achieve this.

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (French, 1809-1865) was a French anarchist who attacked private property and believed that abolition of exploitation and abolition of government are the same. He proposed that workers create a better society by organizing exchange equitably among themselves. Marx was also critical of Proudhon for being utopian, but at the same time used some of Proudhon's ideas.

5. British Political Economy

The writings of Adam Smith and David Ricardo will be examined later, in connection with Marx's labour theory of value. Note though that human labour has an especially important role in the analysis of both Hegel and these political economists. In fact, Hegel may have obtained some of his ideas by reading the early Scottish political economists. In any case, Marx's views with respect to the role of labour are very Hegelian, while the analysis of the labour-capital relationship within capitalism is very much an analysis based on or derived from the views of British political economists.


Berlin, I., Karl Marx: his Life and Environment, New York, Oxford University Press, 1963. HX39.5 B4

Bottomore, T., ed., A Dictionary of Marxist Thought, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1983.

Giddens, A. and D. Held, Classes, Power, and Conflict: Classical and Contemporary Debates, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1982, pp. 12-19. HT675 C55 1982

Grabb, E. G., Theories of Social Inequality: Classical and Contemporary Perspectives, second edition, Toronto, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1990. HT609 G72

Rattansi, A., Marx and the Division of Labour, London, Macmillan, 1982. HB97.5 R369

Ritzer, G., Sociological Theory, third edition, New York, McGraw-Hill, 1992. HM24 R4938.

Seidman, S., Liberalism and the Origins of European Social Theory, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1983.

Zeitlin, I. M., Ideology and the Development of Sociological Thought, fourth edition, Englewood Cliffs, N. J., Prentice Hall, 1990. HM19 Z4


Last edited on September 17, 1999

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