Last Updated on October 2, 2023 by Karl Thompson
In order to fully understand Marxism, you need to understand the work of Karl Marx, who produced most of his writing between 1840 and 1870, and in this post I summarise eight of his key ideas.
NB this is a simplified version of Marxist Theory designed for second year A level students, and I have ‘A-levelled’ it!
Although simplified you might like to read this even simpler version written for first year sociology students: Marx: Key Ideas.
The Bourgeoisie and Proletariat
Under Capitalism there are two basic classes- The Bourgeois and The Proletariat, and their relationship to private property defines them.
The Bourgeoisie own Capital – resources such as land, factories and money which can be used to make a profit, their principle source of income.
The proletariat own no capital – just their labour power and must sell it the Bourgeoisie.
NB when Marx talked about ‘private property’ he was talking about privately owned capital (spare ‘property’ for investing for profit), not someone owning their own tools or even one house in which they lived.
The Bourgeoisie exploit the Proletariat
The amount of money the employer pays the worker is less than the total value of goods that worker produces. The difference between the two is called surplus value. Marx thus says that the capitalist extracts surplus value from the worker. To Marx, Profit is basically the accumulated exploitation of workers in capitalist society.
Control of the Economic Base means control of the superstructure
According to Marx those who have economic power control all other institutions. During Marx’s day there was some evidence to suggest this was true – Voting was restricted to men with property; Press Barons used their papers to spread propaganda; and only the children of the wealthy could get to university.
The Bourgeois use their control of institutions to keep the masses ignorant of their exploitation.
This is known as ideological control. According to Marx this was mainly done through the Mass Media and Religion. Ideological control results in False Consciousness – individuals not being aware (conscious) of their true class position or their exploitation by the ruling class. They are in a state of illusion.
Capitalism causes alienation
Under Capitalism the worker becomes alienated from the process of production, from the people he works with and from the products they produce. This is because he lacks control over his work and becomes a ‘machine’, and thus work appears as ‘alien’ to him.
Marx’s ideas on Capitalism and social change – Competition leads to increasing levels of exploitation – Marx argued that the Capitalism had within it the seeds of its own destruction – it would eventually create the social conditions that would lead to its downfall. In order to stay competitive, Capitalists would have to sell goods at lower prices, which would mean reduced profit.
This would then encourage Capitalists to seek to reduce wages and increase efficiency– making the working conditions of the proletariat ever worse. Marx theorised that increasing numbers of increasingly exploited proletarians crammed into ever expanding cities (where factories were based) would eventually lead to a violent revolution – in which the proletariat would throw off their oppressors.
Revolution and Communism
Marx argued that following the overthrow of the Bourgeois – society would eventually organise itself along Communist lines – where the means of production are collectively owned (no private property) and everyone has equal wealth.
Marx was vague about exactly what the Communist society would look like but argued that in this society ‘each would give according to their ability and take according to their needs’ and that there would be a lot more free time for all.
The point of ‘Social Research’
Marx spent the last decade of his life sitting in the British Library analysing how Capitalism worked and discovered that over time, the degree of exploitation of workers increased. He thus theorised that Capitalism would gradually lead to an increasing amount human misery and exploitation and that it must, one day come to an end.
As far as Marx was concerned, he had realised the truth, and he believed that political action was necessary to ‘wake up’ the proletariat and bring them to revolutionary class consciousness. He spent much of the middle and later parts of his life engaged in efforts to bring about revolutionary change.
Sign Posting – Other Relevant Posts for second year sociology
The Marxist Perspective on Society is usually taught as part of the compulsory Theory and Methods module in the second year of study.
After reading this post you should also read:
Related Posts from other Topics Within Sociology
One way to approach Marxist Theory in second year Sociology is to look at what Marxists say about specific areas of society such as the family and education:
- The Marxist Perspective on The Family
- The Marxist Perspective on Education
- Dependency Theory
- World Systems Theory
Find out more about Marxism – Good external sites
The Marx and Engels Archive – This is a comprehensive site which provides access to Marx’s major works, as well as biographies and articles about Marx, and a picture gallery!
The Communist Manifesto – Published in 1848 this is Marx’s most famous work – the one which contains the classic line ‘Workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains’.
Marxism 2016 – Ideas for Revolution – This is the homepage of the latest Marxism festival, which is held in London every year over several days, where you can go to hear contemporary Marxists speak and argue amongst themselves.
The Victorian Slum is a BBC recreation of slum life from the 1860s, which was one of the decades when Marx was writing and conveys some of the privations working class slum dwellers had to endure – basically wages just about covered lodging and food. NB – According to this article, the level of squalor was almost certainly worse than in the video. There’s a good level of sociological commentary running through this.