This essay first appeared in the International Encyclopedia of Economic Sociology, edited by Jens Beckert and Milan Zafirovski (London and New York:  Routledge, 2006, pp. 434-437).  It was posted as a Notablog entry on 4 January 2006.


By Chris Matthew Sciabarra

International Encyclopedia of Economic Sociology


Few thinkers have had as much influence on the social sciences as the German social theorist Karl Marx (1818-83). His stress upon dialectical analysis---in which society is treated as an historically evolving and systemically interrelated whole---has had a profound impact on political science, economics and sociology. This dialectical method, which seeks to uncover the full context of historically specific social interactions in any given system, is used by Marx as a tool for understanding class relationships under capitalism---and as a means for altering such structures fundamentally.  For Marx, immanent critique of capitalist society anticipates revolutionary change. Uniting theory and practice, Marx declared in his "Theses on Feuerbach": "The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it" (Marx 1845). How society itself might evolve and how one might change society are, therefore, questions of the utmost importance in the Marxian schema.

First and foremost, Marx's corpus is a structure of interpretive analysis that seeks to explain the historical uniqueness of capitalism. Deeply influenced by such classical political economists as Adam Smith and David Ricardo, Marx nonetheless criticized their representation of the capitalist mode of production and its "bourgeois" social relations as a given. He aimed to grasp the historical origins of capitalism and its potential future development towards communism. The classical economists, in Marx's view, had reified the reciprocity of market relations---the equal exchange of value for value---while masking the fact that, under capitalism, labour produces a surplus value, upon which profits and exploitation are built.

Despite his criticisms of classical political economy, Marx learned much from the Scottish historical school, which included Smith, Adam Ferguson, William Robertson, and John Millar---all of whom might be considered early economic sociologists (Meek 1954). These thinkers pioneered a materialist conception of history, which fully appreciated that category of social phenomena known as "the unintended consequences of social action".

For Marx, however, capitalism was "unintended consequences" writ large. He and his life-long collaborator, Frederick Engels, viewed capitalism as an outgrowth of feudalism. Their analysis of the evolution from feudalism to capitalism focused on a series of class and structural differentiations over time---the distinction of pastoral tribes from the general masses, the separation of manufacture from agriculture and of town from country, and the emergence of a class of merchants whose central function was not the production of use-values, but the facilitation of exchange in a globally expanding marketplace. These divisions of class and geography and specializations of function happen spontaneously, as it were, "behind the backs of the producers," as Marx explains in Volume 1 of Capital.  Further fragmentation between purchase and sale, social production and private appropriation, state and civil society were manifestations of the deep "contradictions" in  capitalism, which propelled the system towards ever-worsening periodic crises and business cycles.

Under capitalism, the central dualism opens up between the proletarian and capitalist classes. It is this focus on class that led Marx and Engels ([1848]1968) to view "[t]he history of all hitherto existing society [as] the history of class struggle". Though Marx was not the first thinker to propose a theory of class---Charles Comte, Charles Dunoyer, James Mill and others had offered an alternative classical liberal theory, which continues to exert influence on contemporary libertarianism---he was a pioneer in the use of a conflict model of social systems.

For Marx, the formation of various classes is a function of material conditions. Nevertheless, Marx was not oblivious to the political aspects of class formation. In its origins, capitalism is born of primitive accumulation, in which the mercantilist state---using outright force, political privilege and control over public debt---accelerates the accumulation of capital to crush regressive feudal social formations. But it is through the alienation of products from labourers, the actual producers of value, that capitalism achieves a progressive and revolutionary economic advancement. Marx presents a social stratification theory of sorts, which centres on ownership of the means of production at the core of class fragmentation and conflict. On this basis, Marx saw the propertied capitalist class as fundamentally parasitic on the propertyless proletariat, which constituted the vast majority of capitalist society. Only altering material conditions could make radical social change possible. The priority accorded to material factors in history is the essence of Marx's historical materialism, which locates historical movement, ultimately, in economic development.

In Marx's view, these material factors were tending toward communism. Though he did not provide a fully articulated blueprint for such social change, he saw the achievement of communism as an emancipatory two-stage process. In the first stage, what V. I. Lenin (1973) later called the stage of socialism, the proletariat takes control of the means of production and the state, which had been an instrument in the hands of the capitalist class, and uses these institutions for the benefit of the workers. This "dictatorship of the proletariat" eventually leads to the abolition of class society in the second stage, which marks the triumph of communism. At this point, the market has been fully supplanted as the agency of circulation and the state withers away, enabling a democratized distribution of abundant goods in a post-scarcity society.

Whatever one's views of Marx's historical projections, there is much debate in the literature on the nature of historical materialism, especially Marx's view of the relationship between the material or economic "base" and the ideological, cultural and political "superstructure". For example, Jeffrey Alexander, in his comprehensive work on Theoretical Logic in Sociology, argues that, especially in the crucial period from 1845 to 1848, Marx put forth a strict instrumentalist model of technological determinism. For Alexander, Marx banishes voluntarism from sociology. Marx's division between material life and consciousness, or base and superstructure, entails a one-way causality, in Alexander's view, since the base fully determines superstructural elements. This approach denies any autonomy to political forces and reduces human consciousness to a pure epiphenomenon of material conditions, a "sociology" of knowledge that eliminates human agency from the social process.

Alternative nondeterminist readings are offered by such writers as Avineri (1968), Giddens (1979), Ollman (1976) and Sherman (1995). These writers emphasize the dialectical character of Marx's method as a way of combating strict determinist implications. In these readings, the base is not purely "technological" or "material"; it is social, consisting of conscious, reasoning, purposeful human beings who act under historically specific conditions.

Ollman (1993) argues further that Marx, whose dialectics was influenced by Joseph Dietzgen and G. W. F. Hegel, embraces a doctrine of internal relations. Externally related variables are independent: neither depends on the other for its existence or meaning. Internally related variables are reciprocally dependent on each other. In Marx's conception of society, mutual implications abound. Each unit---each structure, institution, class, etc.---is treated as an expression of capitalism, even as the totality of capitalism is comprised of the various units. Because human beings cannot cognitively digest the whole as a whole, the process of abstraction is essential to the analysis of any social problem. Marx's sociological imagination, therefore, incorporates a crucially important perspectival element. By varying his vantage points and his levels of generality, and by extending each unit of his analysis spatially and temporally, tracing its systemic relationships to other units and its dynamic relationships---especially its class relationships---across time, Marx is able to achieve a more comprehensive picture of capitalism.

It can be said that Marx and Engels lend credence to both the determinist and nondeterminist readings. For example, in The Poverty of Philosophy, Marx asserts that "[t]he windmill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam mill, society with the industrial capitalist" (Marx [1847]1963). And Engels (1940) argued for a series of dialectical "laws"---  "the transformation of quantity into quality", "the interpenetration of opposites", "the negation of the negation"---that, he believed, were applicable equally to the natural and social worlds. This inspired a whole generation of Soviet writers, including G. V. Plekhanov, who adopted and popularized the doctrine of "dialectical materialism" as a Unified Science---an all-inclusive model of explanation. Many contemporary Marxists have distanced themselves from this "scientism", which, philosopher Roy Bhaskar (1993) argues, was "neither presupposed nor entailed" in Marx's analysis of capitalism.

Nevertheless, there is evidence that both Marx and Engels' dialectical project was far more flexible than any strict determinist model. Engels, in a series of "revisionist" letters in the 1890s (Marx and Engels 1982), objected to the use of the materialist conception of history as an abstract formula imposed externally on the objects of study. And Marx maintained, in Volume 3 of Capital, that one must always take into account the "innumerable different empirical circumstances, natural environment, racial relations, external historical influences, etc." which are responsible, in any given society, for "infinite variations and gradations in appearance". The scientific study of society is immanent to its context and must be "ascertained only by analysis of the empirically given circumstances" (Marx [1894]1967).

In the period following Marx's death, this scientific study of society became central to the discipline of sociology. As Bottomore (1983) suggests, some of the early sociologists, such as Ferdinand Tonnies, acknowledged their indebtedness to Marx, just as others---for example, Max Weber and Emile Durkheim---pursued their sociological work "in critical opposition to Marxism". Still, there have been notable Marxist contributions to sociology by Carl Grunberg, Karl Kautsky, Franz Mehring and Georges Sorel. And despite early communist governments' directives against sociology as a "bourgeois" discipline, sociological studies were published by Russian and Austro-Marxists, as well as by "Western Marxists" and the critical theorists of the Frankfurt School. While such writers as Georg Lukacs, Karl Korsch and Antonio Gramsci developed the historical materialism of the Marxist paradigm, others, such as Louis Althusser and Nicos Poulantzas, have combined that paradigm with various insights from structuralism, functionalism and systems theory.

References and further reading

Alexander, Jeffrey C. (1982) Theoretical Logic in Sociology, Volume Two: The Antinomies of Classical Thought: Marx and Durkheim, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Avineri, Shlomo (1968) The Social and Political Thought of Karl Marx, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bhaskar, Roy (1993) Dialectic: The Pulse of Freedom, London: Verso.

Bottomore, Tom (1975) Marxist Sociology, London: Macmillan.

---. (1983) "Sociology", in Tom Bottomore, Laurence Harris, V. G. Kiernan and Ralph Miliband (eds), A Dictionary of Marxist Thought, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, pp. 450-3.

Engels, Frederick. (1940) Dialectics of Nature, New York: International Publishers.

Flacks, Richard (1982) "Marxism and Sociology", in Bertell Ollman and Edward Vernoff (eds), The Left Academy: Marxist Scholarship on American Campuses, New York: McGraw-Hill, pp. 9-52.

Giddens, Anthony. (1979) Central Problems in Social Theory: Action, Structure and Contradiction in Social Analysis, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Lefebvre, Henri (1968) The Sociology of Marx, New York: Pantheon.

Lenin, V. I. (1973) The State and Revolution, Peking: Foreign Languages Press.

Marx, Karl (1845) "Theses on Feuerbach", in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Selected Works, New York: International Publishers, 1968, pp. 28-30.

---. ([1847]1963) The Poverty of Philosophy, New York: International Publishers.

---. ([1867]1967) Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume 1: The Process of Capitalist Production, New York: International Publishers.

---. ([1894]1967) Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume 3: The Process of Capitalist Production as a Whole, New York: International Publishers.

Marx, Karl and Engels, Frederick ([1848]1968) "Manifesto of the Communist Party", in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Selected Works, New York: International Publishers, pp. 31-63.

---. (1982) Selected Correspondence, 1844-1895, third revised edition, Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Meek, Ronald L. (1954) "The Scottish Contribution to Marxist Sociology", in John Saville (ed.), Democracy and the Labour Movement, London: Lawrence and Wishart, pp. 84-102.

Ollman, Bertell (1976) Alienation: Marx's Conception of Man in Capitalist Society, second edition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

---. (1993) Dialectical Investigations, New York: Routledge.

Sherman, Howard J. (1995) Reinventing Marxism, Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Therborn, Goran (1976) Science, Class and Society: On the Formation of Sociology and Historical Materialism, London: New Left Books.


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