Eight Criticisms of the Traditional Marxist View of Society

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Today in 2022 it is clear that many of the these ideas are no longer valid.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.

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.

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, as well as guaranteeing a minimum wage.

All of these things acts 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 controlled the economic superstructure – yet many of our institutions today have at least relative autonomy from Bourgeois control – it is quite obvious, for example, that huge sections of the press are critical of the Elite and many popular music artists are extremely critical of the Capitalist system.

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.

There is less Alienation today

There is much less Alienation in modern companies. Workers have a lot more say, partly due to unionisation and partly due to enlightened management techniques. In addition, there are four million self employed people who directly control the terms and conditions of their working lives.

Capitalism has changed and works for many

Classic Marxist theory has been criticised for being economically deterministic. Marx argued that ‘economic laws’ determined not only the shape of society but also the direction of history itself.

On reflection, however, it is clearly the case that other factors shape history too – different societies have responded differently to the global spread of Capitalism – some have pushed neo-liberalism (America and Britain under Thatcher and Bliare) others have taken a social democratic line and used the state as a buffer to protect citizens from the worst excesses of Capitalist exploitation (Scandanavian countries); China has developed a form of autocratic- capitalism and other countries (Cuba and more recently Venezuala) have rejected it in favour of a Socialist dictatorship.

Communism didn’t work

The Communist Revolutions in Eastern Europe did not lead to greater equality and freedom as Marx would have hoped. 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 Metanarraitve

Finally, many sociologists today would argue that Marx’s ‘grand theorising’ about the world is no longer relevant – rather than researching with the intention of creating the perfect society, we should really be 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





11 responses to “Eight Criticisms of the Traditional Marxist View of Society”

  1. Karl Thompson

    Yes fair point!

  2. Karl Thompson

    I basically agree!

  3. rohit chaudhary

    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.

  4. Liliana Munoz Flannery

    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.

  5. Paul A Snow

    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.

  6. Anonymous

    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

  7. Karl Thompson

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

  8. Anonymous

    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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