Eight Criticisms of the Traditional Marxist View of Society

Capitalism and the class structure have changed since Marx’s day, and work is less alienating, and other criticisms!

Last Updated on April 26, 2023 by Karl Thompson

Eight criticisms of Marx’s view of society are:

  1. The class structure today is more complex.
  2. Capitalism today is less exploitative
  3. Control of the economic base does not mean control of the superstructure
  4. False consciousness is a problem concept in postmodern society
  5. There is less alienation today
  6. Capitalism has lifted billions of people out of poverty
  7. Communism didn’t work
  8. Marxism was a metanarrative.

Writing in the 19th century Karl Marx saw society as clearly structured into two classes: the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, the former exploiting the later. He believed the Bourgeoisie controlled the superstructure and that they used institutions such as religion to spread false consciousness which distracted workers from their alienating working conditions which prevented them from rising up in revolution.

Today in 2022 it is clear that many of the these ideas are no longer valid. This post summarises eight criticisms of Marx’s view of society and social change including

Before reading it you might like to read up on the key ideas of Marx here: The Traditional Marxist Perspective on Society which outlines Marx’s theory of society in more depth and this post: Eight Ways in Which Marxism is Still Relevant Today which suggests some of Marx’s ideas may still hold some relevance today!

The class structure today is more complex than Bourgeois-Proletariat.

There is no clear dividing line between the Bourgeois (who in Marxist terms are the investor capitalist class who own the means of production) and the Proletariat (the people who have to sell their labour power to earn wages and survive).

In most Western Nations and increasingly in developing nations there is an extensive middle class who have stocks and shares invested in Corporations run by what Marxists would call the ‘Capitalist Class’. Also in Britain 70% of people own their own homes and see these homes (our private property) as ‘economic assets’ so many of us are, in a sense, petit-capitalists.

There are also more social class today. The Great British Class Survey (GBCS) conducted in 2011 found seven distinct social classes, with cultural and social capital being almost as important as economic capital in determining which class someone falls into.

The GBCS did find evidence of an ‘ordinary elite class’ of wealthy, high income individuals who tended to own their own homes, with an average age over 50, but these made up 6% of the population and are nothing like the ‘Bourgeoise’

Age also has a significant influence on what class you fall into today: older people are more likely to be elite or traditional working class, younger people more likely to fall into the new social classes in the middle.

In short social class today is something of a complex, messy, picture, and certainly not as simple as one small class of capitalists exploiting a larger working class.

Capitalism today is less exploitative

Two historical examples of this are when Henry Ford, the famous car manufacturer, realised that paying his workers good wages would generate demand for the cars he produced – a process which lead to workers being less exploited and ‘buying into’ the Capitalist system.

A second example is the move towards ‘Keynsian Economics’ in which the state came to play a more central role in regulating Capitalism to ensure that worst excesses of exploitation, inequality and insecurity that pure Capitalism generates were minimised.

Part of this involved the introduction of the welfare state in many European Countries after the Second World War. In the United Kingdom the state now provides universal health care, education, pensions and social security, these are paid for through a progressive taxation system: the more you earn, the more you pay, and yet everyone benefits.

Possibly the most obvious piece of evidence that Capitalism has lost its exploitative power is the introduction of a minimum wage in the UK in 1998, which has gradually increased broadly in line with inflation and stands at £10.42 an hour in 2023. Employers are legally obliged to pay this.

All of these things act as a safety net to ensure that the worst excesses of Capitalist exploitation are ameliorated.

Control of the Economic Base does not mean control of the Superstructure

Marx argued that those who control the economic base (the economy) controlled the economic superstructure (religion, education, media for example) – yet many of our institutions today have at least relative autonomy from Bourgeois control.

Much of the media today is completely independent of Bourgeois control, with many media outlets being critical of governments, Transnational Corporations and the global wealth elite. This is especially true of media companies which operate purely online, and there are hundreds of these today.

Many popular music artists are also extremely critical of the Capitalist system and have audiences of hundreds of millions of people.

Similarly education systems today are increasingly free of bourgeois and government control. Granted national curriculums may be shaped by national governments but there is an ever increasing amount of educational material available online for free which is not controllable but a small elite.

In short it seems that as we have shifted to a Postmodern society the superstructure (the media and education systems) have grown massively in size and are increasingly controlled from below by a diverse array of individuals. The superstructure is simply too large today to be controlled by a small minority.

Criticisms of False Consciousness

Given the above three points, it seems ludicrous to argue that the superstructure is controlled by the Bourgeoisie and is used to create false consciousness.

Firstly, post-modernists argue that culture (mainly the media) exists independently of Bourgeois control and is used by people in different for a variety of different purposes. If institutions are not controlled by the Bourgeois, then there can be no False Consciousness.

What we really have in post-modern society according to Post-Modernists is free individuals who correctly see class as irrelevant and who do not feel exploited and who are happy to identify themselves through the products they buy – products that are themselves the final outcome of a successful Capitalist system of production.

From a more philosophical point of view Marx’s concept of ‘false consciousness’ implies that there is also a ‘correct consciousness’ which in turn rests on the idea of there being ‘one truth’. This idea is problematic from a postmodern stand point which believes there is not one truth, but many different interpretations of reality and so many truths.

Work is less Alienating today

Work has changed a lot in the last hundred years. In general, jobs today are much less alienating than when Marx was writing in the mid 19th century.

At least 45% of jobs in the UK today are associate professional/ technical or above (1) and these are skilled jobs which tend to allow workers more autonomy than the kind of unskilled factory jobs which Marx saw as alienating.

There are also more than four million self employed people who directly control the terms and conditions of their working lives, and if you control your own working conditions then by definition you are NOT alienated.

Following Covid there is now much more working from home and flexible working hours, which means companies are flexing around the needs of workers, making work fit their home-lives rather than the other way around.

In modern companies workers have a lot more say, partly due to unionisation and partly due to enlightened management techniques.

Capitalism has changed and works for many

Classic Marxist theory has been criticised for being economically deterministic. Marx argued that economic laws would result in ever increasing amounts of exploitation for the poor an increasing concentrations of wealth at the top.

However, as it turns out the evolution of the global capitalist system has resulted in increasing wealth and prosperity for most people, and while the very rich have got VERY rich, we have also seen a persistent decline in global poverty over the past thirty years.

Different societies have responded differently to the global spread of Capitalism – some have pushed neo-liberalism (America and Britain since the early 1980s) whereas other European countries have taken a social democratic line and used the state as a buffer to protect citizens from the worst excesses of Capitalist exploitation (Scandinavian countries).

Whatever form state-capitalism has taken in Europe, there has been a general long-term trend towards ever increasing wealth, with the majority of people today being better off now than they were in one hundred years ago. Granted, there is a current squeeze in the form of a cost of living crisis, but the long term trend has been one of growing prosperity for most Europeans.

India and China, the two most populous countries in the world have also seen rapid economic growth in the last few decades, and have done so through embracing capitalist models of development (albeit in very different forms). Both of these countries have expanding middle classes with an increasingly global outlook.

Communism didn’t work

The Communist Revolutions in Eastern Europe did not lead to greater equality and freedom as Marx would have hoped. The collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 marked the end of Communism in Eastern Europe and the gradual transition of ex Soviet-bloc countries to capitalist systems; while China has gradually become more open to capitalism over the same period.

Given the failures of communism it is difficult to see what the alternative to Capitalism might be. NB – As a counter critique, contemporary Marxists would argue that the state communism of Eastern Europe was hardly true communism.

Traditional Marxism was a Metanarrative

From a more philosophical point of view Marx’s concept of ‘false consciousness’ implies that there is also a ‘correct consciousness’ in which workers realise the truth that they are being exploited and join a revolutionary movement for social change which pushes towards the Communist future.

However, as mentioned above, this idea that we should all be seeing the world in the same way because there is only one truth (Marx’s truth) is problematic in postmodernism which believes there are many different and equally valid ways of seeing the world.

Postmodernists would argue that Marx’s ‘grand theorising’ about the world is no longer relevant: IF we are interested in getting political then rather than researching with the intention of creating the perfect society, we would be better off focussing our attention of much more specific and localised social issues.

Signposting and Related Posts

This post has primarily been written for A-level sociology students focussing on the Theory and Methods module in the second year.

Two related posts include:

The Traditional Marxist Perspective on Society

Eight Ways in Which Marxism is Still Relevant Today


(1) ONS (2022) Industry and Occupation, England and Wales Census 2021.

11 thoughts on “Eight Criticisms of the Traditional Marxist View of Society”

  1. people are more pragmatic now-a-days. they do not think about being alienated. if they are in a job which they do not like but gives them a handsome economic returns , they link their happiness with things which they can buy from this job/business like car,foreign trips etc & it should be like this.

  2. One big issue with capitalism isn’t that people have the opportunity to ‘win big’, it’s that people are highly likely to lose big. Capitalism cannot offer shared success. Success and growth always depend on the failure and deprivation of something/ someone/ somewhere else. This is one of its primary issues.

  3. Capitalism is the worst, until you compare it to everything else.
    The natural world is competitive. You see every single strategy of capitalism employed in the natural world. Why, because we as people and society progress by competing with each other.
    It is rather odd that people seem to believe there is a path to eliminating competition. That the fact that some people can win (and even win big) in the competition means capitalism is bad. Or that people gather at the poles of the argument asserting that capitalism doesn’t need referees at one pole, and shouldn’t exist on the other pole.
    The truth is in the middle.

    The most successful assertion in human history was the Christian summary of Judaism as reported by Jesus, that we should forgive each other, love our enemies, and return good for evil. All without any ban on competing with each other at the same time. Love your neighbor as yourself was illustrated by the Good Samaritan (a Samaritan being the disadvantaged class of a guy) who cared for and helped an elite (a Jew) who was beaten by thieves, left for dead, and ignored by fellow Jews.

    In summary, marxism is a theory of societal conflict between groups where we will always define success by overcoming our opponents. The deep, mostly ignored, but fundamental underlying western ethic inherited from Judaism is that we first get along, we look for opportunities to help those around us (independent of grouping), and we vigorously compete with each other.

  4. Gotta say the whole ideological critique is completely false, Rupert Murdoch and other billionaires owns so much of the media and thus loads of right wing newspapers like the sun turn their faults of the economy narrative onto foreigners and other minorities, not the conservative austerity that benefited the upper classes.
    False consciousness has never been more apparent.
    Other than that some great critiques that i will be using in my marxism essay

  5. Thanks for the comment. Marxism is probably most relevant today when applied to less developed countries, so well said!

  6. Well this is a good well reasoned argument for once. I would say that Marx was correct in all most all these points in his own time when captains of industry made everyone suffer and I might extend this to african and asian countries in the modern day as well.

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