Marxism and Culture

Culture is what distinguishes humans from animals, but under Capitalism culture becomes a tool of the elite used to repress the masses. However, there is capacity for individuals to rise above false consciousness and usher in communism which is where the spontaneous production of culture can happen under free conditions.

Marx argued that human labour was integral to an individual’s sense of identity and the wider culture of a society.

In the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts Marx argued that it was work, or consciously transforming nature, which distinguished humans from animals, and it was through the creative process of work that man came to recognised himself as human.

For Marx the ideal-state of society was one in which individuals freely organised themselves into groups and collectively engaged in work, intentionally and consciously using their labour power to meet their own physical and aesthetic needs.

In fact for Marx, the origins of culture lie in the capacity of men to collectively organise and consciously produce things, especially those things which are over and above what individuals need to survive.

The material conditions and social relations of a society shape culture to an extent – in Marx’s view there is an ideal state he calls communism which is where there is no private property and under these material conditions man is the most free to use his labour power to express his humanity to its fullest extent.

Under such ‘ideal conditions’ the cultures which emerge are (in my interpretation of Marx) just spontaneous human cultures, as ‘good’ as it gets.

However under the unequal material conditions of class stratified societies, it is the culture of elite class which emerges as the dominant one which in turn becomes a tool to oppress the minority who live in a state of unfreedom and false consciousness.

Alienation and Culture

According to Marx, the ideal-state for humanity is that they live in social conditions which allow them the freedom to fulfil their material needs and aesthetic desires through the creative process of creating things using their imagination.

However, historically the emergence of the concept of Private Property and the accumulation of this property by a few gave rise to Capitalism. Under capitalism a handful of people own and control the means of production which means the majority do not own them which thus means the masses cease to exist in a state of freedom.

Under capitalism the majority lose their freedom to organise their own labour, instead they end up having to work for those who own the means of production, in places such as factories, in order to survive, and they thus lose control over their creative-productive process, and also their very sense of humanity and culture. It was this condition which Marx referred to as Alienation.

So for Marx, the ideal state is that human culture emerges through the individuals freely engaging in productive activities, but the emergence of Private Property and Capitalist inequalities distorts this process, alienating the masses because they are no longer free to organise create their own cultures through their own productive processes.

Culture as Ruling Class Ideology

Marx argued that in class-stratified societies the dominant culture came from the ruling class…..

“The ideas of the ruling class are, in every age, the ruling ideas… the dominant ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas.”

In Capitalist societies the dominant class was the Bourgeoisie (the owners of the mans of production) and they used their economic power to shape the dominant culture (norms and values) in capitalist society in the 19th century.

We see this especially in Marx’s ideas about the role of religion in society – Christianity in the 19th century was mainly a conservative force which encouraged the poor to know their place in society, respect authority, work hard and seek their rewards in heaven.

Hence Marx saw culture as part of the superstructure of society – with (for example) religious ideas helping to maintain a system of norms and values (a culture) which benefitted existing elites by preventing the spreading of more revolutionary ideas and thus keeping the existing unequal material relations in place.

Some later Marxists such as Adorno applied Marx’s theory to how the mass media works along similar lines in modern societies – with the media effectively keeping the massive passive and stupid and preventing social change.

However even Marx and Engels themselves admitted that the material infrastructure does not entirely determine culture, there is room for some alternative cultures to emerge besides the dominant culture.

Culture as a Reflection of Class Differences

One interpretation of Marx and Engels’ perspective on culture in relation to social class is that different classes will have different cultures, because culture reflects the material conditions in which people live, and there are material differences between social classes.

However Engels himself recognised that aspects of culture could transcend class origins, at least in the sphere of literature where some writers were concerned.

Using the example of Goethe Engles noted that he both celebrated German culture, which reflected his comfortable middle class origins, but he was also clearly disgusted by the wretchedness of his surroundings.

Thus Engels argues that while literature and other forms of art do generally reflect the class origins of those producing them, there is the capacity for individuals to break free of false consciousness and perceive social injustices.

This capacity for individuals and their cultural products to break free of their material conditions is in fact essential for Marx and Engels’ theory of social change to work.

The end point for Marxist Theory is the transition from Capitalism to Communism via revolution, and for that to happen the working classes need to break free from their chains, and to do that they have to break free of false consciousness and be able to see ruling class ideology as false.

Signposting and related posts

This material in this post is relevant to the Culture and Identity module, usually taught as part of the first year of study for AQA’s sociology specification.

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Evaluate the View that the Main Aim of the Family is to Meet the Needs of Capitalism (20)

Families marxism essay coverCapitalism is an economic system characterised by private ownership of means of production. The Marxist perspective argues that in many ways the family serves the needs of capitalism in a number of ways, ultimately benefitting the bourgeoisie and the proletariat remaining oppressed and exploited. Other perspectives however such as feminism would argue that serving the needs of capitalism is not the main aim of the family. They would argue instead that the family benefits males and reinforces a patriarchal society.

Engels argues that the nuclear family emerged as a direct result of capitalism. Primitive communism is the name given to society before capitalism had emerged. There was no private property and no family as such. Instead Engels called groups or tribes “the promiscuous horde” with no restrictions on sexual relationships. The introduction of capitalism meant that the wealthy wanted to secure control of the means of production. This brought around the monogamous nuclear family, as rich men had to ensure the paternity of their children so that they could pass down their property to legitimate heirs. This argument has been criticised by feminists who argue that this further reinforces patriarchy with women simply bearing children to provide men with legitimate heirs.

Functionalists however would dispute this view of the emergence of the nuclear family arguing instead that it came about in response to the demand of post-industrial society. Parsons functional fit theory explains how the family has evolved in keeping with the needs of society at that time. In post-industrial society when families farmed the land, they were typically extended, however after the industrial revolution the nuclear family emerged, creating a mobile workforce who could easily relocate to wherever work was available in the factories. This view has been criticised by Laslett who has argued that church records demonstrate that the extended family was already in decline and the nuclear family more popular even before the revolution, therefore cannot be seen as a direct response.

Marxists argued that the family can be seen as an ideological apparatus, helping to enforce a set of beliefs and values which ultimately benefit capitalism. For example children are bought up with a parental figure that they are taught to obey. This teaches them discipline, which will benefit their bosses when they join the workforce, but also teaches them about hierarchy and that inequality is inevitable making them less likely to question their position as an exploited proletariat when they go out to work, again benefitting capitalism. Again feminists have criticised this argument, due to the fact that children are socialised into the idea that the people in charge or at the top of the hierarchy are usually men again demonstrating that children are being socialised into gender specific roles in a patriarchal society.

Functionalists argue that rather than being an ideological apparatus spreading the ideas and values of capitalism, families benefit society as a whole through the function of primary socialisation. Functionalists argue that the family socialises children into the acceptable norms and values of society and ensures that order is maintained and deviance reduced. Marxists would challenge this view arguing that society is made up of two opposing groups, with a conflict of interests, therefore they would not interpret the family as having a positive role, or society’s agreeing on a set of shared norms and values.

Finally, Marxists argue that the family acts as a unit of consumption. The proletariat are exploited for their labour making consumer goods in factories which are then sold to them at a higher price than they were paid to produce them. Marxists argue that the family generates profits by targeting advertising at children who then use their ‘pester power’ to get goods bought by their parents. We also have a culture of ‘keeping up with the Jones’s where we consume the latest consumer products, again benefiting capitalism by lining the pockets of the bourgeoisie. However the Marxist perspective only views there being two classes, the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. Some commentators would argue that recently we have seen an emergence of an underclass who despite demonstrating a culture of unemployment, can still buy consumer goods without having to be exploited for their labour.

In conclusion the Marxist perspective has a number of compelling arguments as to how the family may serve the needs of capitalism; however it is unclear whether this argument is valid, especially in today’s diverse and rapidly changing society with a growing service sector and emergence of an underclass. Other perspectives such as feminism argue that the family does not serve the needs of capitalism, instead the needs of men, whereas functionalists focus on the positive functions of the family. Undeniably the family does hold benefits for its members by creating a supportive and loving environment for members, therefore to see it as purely benefiting capitalism would be short-sighted.

For a more accessible version of this plan, you might like to buy my AS Sociology Families and Households Revision Bundle where you’ll find a completed template like the one above…

Families Revision Bundle CoverThe Bundle contains the following:

  1. 50 pages of revision notes covering all of the sub-topics within families and households
  2. mind maps in pdf and png format – 9 in total, covering perspectives on the family
  3. short answer exam practice questions and exemplar answers – 3 examples of the 10 mark, ‘outline and explain’ question.
  4.  9 essays/ essay plans spanning all the topics within the families and households topic.

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The Marxist Perspective on the Family

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