Last Updated on September 15, 2023 by Karl Thompson
The Marxist Perspective is a central theory within A level Sociology. This post outlines some of the key concepts of Karl Marx such as his ideas about the social class structure, his criticisms of capitalism and communism as an alternative.
The material below is written for 16-19 year old students in their very first two weeks of studying A-level sociology. I would deliver this as part of a two to three week-long module in ‘introducing sociology‘.
This post deliberately simplifies Marx’s ideas to make them understandable for students who haven’t been exposed to them before. For more nuanced, accurate and in-depth posts on Marxist theory see the links at the end of this post.
Karl Marx: Six Key Ideas
- Capitalist society is divided into two classes: the Bourgeoisie and the Proletariat.
- The Bourgeoisie exploit the Proletariat by extracting profit from them.
- Those with economic power control other social institutions.
- The bourgeoise excerpt Ideological control over the proletariat: they control their minds rather than controlling them through physical force.
- The proletariat exist in a state of False Consciousness: they think inequality and exploitation, for example.
- Revolution and Communism are necessary to improve the conditions of the working classes.
Karl Marx’s Ideas: Historical Context
Karl Marx (1818- 1883) was alive in the middle of the 19th century, and it is important to realise that his theories stem from an analysis of European societies 150 years ago.
Marx travelled through Europe during the mid and later half of the 19th century where he saw much poverty and inequality. The more he travelled the more he explained what he saw through unequal access to resources and ownership of property. He argued that the working class (proletariat) in Britain (and elsewhere) was being exploited by the ruling class (bourgeoisie).
The ruling class paid the working class less wages than they deserved, made them work long hours in poor conditions, and kept the profit from the sale of the goods produced. Thus, the ruling class got richer and the working class became increasingly poor, and had no way of improving their prospects.
Marx argued they only way the working classes could improve their conditions was to come together and overthrow the ruling class in a revolution. Equality for all in the shape of Communism would replace an unequal capitalist system.
The rest of this post expands on six key ideas of Karl Marx.
Capitalist society is divided into two classes
The two main classes in capitalist societies are the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The Bourgeoisie are the owners of capital, such as land businesses, and the proletariat are the workers.
The Bourgeoisie or the Capitalist class own and control the ‘means of production’. The mans of production consist of land, factories and machines that could be used to produce goods that could then be sold for a profit. These are a tiny majority, but they own the majority of wealth.
The Proletariat do not own the means of production and can only gain a living by selling their labour power to the bourgeoisie for a price. The proletariat are the largest class, the masses, who own almost no wealth.
Marx recognised that the class structure was a little more complex, with a middle class of small tradesmen, for example. However these two main classes are the important ones.
The bourgeoisie exploit the proletariat
Marx argued that the bourgeoisie maintain and increase their wealth through exploiting the working class.
The relationship between these two classes is exploitative because the amount of money the Capitalist pays his workers (their wages) is always below the current selling, or market price of whatever they have produced. The difference between the two is called surplus value.
Marx thus says that the capitalist extracts surplus value from the worker. Because of this extraction of surplus value, the capitalist class is only able to maintain and increase their wealth at the expense of the proletariat. To Marx, Profit is basically the accumulated exploitation of workers in capitalist society.
Marx thus argues that at root, capitalism is an unjust system because those that actually do the work are not fairly rewarded for the work that they do and the interests of the Capitalist class are in conflict with the interests of the working class.
Those with economic power control other institutions in society
Marx argued that those who control the Economic Base also control the Superstructure – that is, those who have wealth or economic power also have political power and control over the rest of society.
The Economic Base (The Mode of Production): Consists of the forces of production (tools, machinery, raw materials which people use to produce goods and services)and the relations of production (social relations between people involved in the production of goods and services). Together these make up the mode of production
The Superstructure: all other institutions: The legal system, the mass media, family, education etc. These are then used to bring about Ideological Control and ultimately False Consciousness.
Marx argued that the ruling classes used their control of social institutions to gain ideological dominance, or control over the way people think in society. Marx argued that the ideas of the ruling classes were presented as common sense and natural and thus unequal, exploitative relationships were accepted by the proletariat as the norm.
One example of how ideological control was achieved in Marx’s time was through religion. Christianty at the time argued that poverty was a virtue because Jesus was poor. The church taught that poor people should should accept their poverty in this life, but be good people and seek their rewards in eternal heaven. Marx argued that religion acted like Opium, making people feel good about being poor, and this helped to maintain the unequal social order.
Ideological control leads to false class consciousness
The end result of ideological control is false consciousness – where the masses, or proletariat are deluded into thinking that everything is fine and that the appalling in which they live and work are inevitable. This delusion is known as False Consciousness. In Marxist terms, the masses suffer from false class consciousness and fail to realise their common interest against their exploiters.
A fetish is an object of desire, worship or obsessive concern. Capitalism is very good at producing ‘things’. In capitalist society people start to obsess about material objects and money, which is necessary to purchase these objects. Material objects and money are worshipped in capitalist societies. Some people even need material objects to construct identities – this is partly responsible for keeping most of us in ‘false consciousness’
Revolution and Communism
As far as Marx was concerned, he had realised the truth – Capitalism was unjust but people just hadn’t realised it! He believed that political action was necessary to ‘wake up’ the proletariat and bring them to revolutionary class consciousness.
Eventually, following a revolution, private property would be abolished and with it the profit motive and the desire to exploit. In the communist society, people would be more equal, have greater freedom and be happier.
Criticisms of Traditional Marxism
- Marx’s concept of social class has been criticised as being too simplistic. Today, there are clearly not just two social classes, but several; moreover, most people don’t identify with other members of their social class, so it is questionable how relevant the concept of social class is today.
- Clearly Marx’s predictions about capitalism ending and the ‘inevitable success of communism’ have been proved wrong with the collapse of communism.
- Capitalism has changed a lot since Marx’s day, and it appears to work for more people. Capitalism today is less exploitative, so maybe this explains why it still continues to this day?
Evidence that Marxism is still Relevant Today
Contemporary Marxist sociologists argue that Marxism is still relevant in many ways. For example:
Parents want the perfect family and they compete with one another for the best house, car, holiday and the best dressed/most successful children etc. This is encouraged through advertising and TV programmes. Significant sums of money are spent in pursuit of the “perfect” family.
This benefits the bourgeoisie in two ways:
- Parents work harder at work improving profits for their companies owners – the bourgeoisie.
- Parents spend more of their salary on providing this lifestyle – this benefits the bourgeoisie as they can make more profits by selling goods and services to the parents.
Furthermore, it makes parents feel “happy” about family life and society generally, even though they might work 12 hour days for an average salary, rarely seeing their family. Lastly, children grow up watching their parents behave in this manner and then replicate it as adults with their own families.
The mainstream media is controlled by few wealthy individuals who promote the ideas and beliefs that maintain the bourgeoisie’s wealthy position in society. This encourages people to accept beliefs which benefit capitalism and legitimise (justify) the exploitation of the proletariat (workers) as normal. The media justify exploitation and even make it into games shows.
Education Encourages people to accept hierarchy and to be obedient. This is good for capitalism as it creates students who will later become good workers. Also, schools emphasise high achievement and high flying jobs – implicitly this means highly paid jobs, better profits for company owners and more exploitation for the workers.
Schools also encourage the idea people get what they deserve in education, when in reality educational achievement is primarily a result of the chance circumstances of your birth i.e. who your parents are.
Signposting and Related Posts
This post has been written as an introduction to Marxism for A-level sociology students in their very first two weeks of study. I would deliver this as part of a two to three week-long module ‘introducing sociology‘.
Related posts for the first year of A-level sociology include:
More advanced posts on Marxism:
The Traditional Marxist Perspective on Society – for second year!
Please click here to return to the homepage – ReviseSociology.com
Marxism: Find out More!
- Read Marx: A Beginner’s Guide by Andrew Collier
- Read Francis Wheen’s biography of Karl Marx.
- http://www.marxism.org.uk – a pretty useful overview of what Marx’s basic ideas and Marxism more generally.
- Marx quotes.
Videos introducing Karl Marx’s Ideas
There are a lot of videos on YouTube on basic Marxism, but to my mind the two below are the most useful as introductions. Having said that, they both still contain A LOT of complex information, so don’t worry too much if you find you don’t understand everything in either or both videos!
Crash Course – Karl Marx and Conflict Theory
This is probably better for a first year university student, but it’s still a reasonably easy introduction.
The School of Life – Karl Mark Political Thought
This is a little heavier going than the video above, but maybe more accessible as the narrator speaks slower, and it also comes to the firm conclusion that Marxism is still relevant today!