Marxism – A Level Sociology Revision Notes

Karl Marx and Louis Althusser are Modernist, Structural Conflict Theorists while Antonio Gramsci is  a Humanist Conflict Theorist.

Marxism for A Level Sociology
Marxism for A Level Sociology

Karl Marx: Key Ideas

  • Two classes – Bourgeois – Proletariat
  • Relationship between them is Exploitation/ Surplus Value
  • The Base (economy) determines the Superstructure (all other institutions)
  • The ruling class have ideological control through the superstructure
  • The proletariat exist in false consciousness
  • The fundamental problem with Capitalism is that it causes alienation
  • Revolution is inevitable because the iron law of Capitalism is that exploitation must carry on increasing.
  • Communism is the final stage of societal evolution (the abolition of private property)
  • The purpose of research is to find out more about the laws of Capitalism to see when revolution is ripe.

Antonio Gramsci: Humanistic Marxism

  • Criticised Marx because he thought individuals are more active, not passive
  • Introduced the concept of Hegemony – Ruling class maintain power through Coercive and Hegemonic control
  • Ruling class hegemonic control is never complete because they are too few and they have the proletariat have dual consciousness – they can see through Bourgeois ideology.
  • To bring about social change the proletariat needs its own organic intellectuals to develop a counter-hegemony – a realistic alternative to Communism, to lead people to Socialism.

Louis Althusser: Scientific Marxism

  • Criticised Marx – There are three levels of control: economic, political, and ideological. The Bourgeois maintain control on all three levels and they all reinforce each other.
  • They maintain control through the Repressive state apparatus – the army
  • More importantly – the Ideological state apparatus – everything else, most obviously education and the media.
  • Criticised humanistic Marxism – structure determines everything, people are incapable of having genuinely revolutionary ideas within the existing Capitalist system
  • Capitalism needs to collapse before socialism comes about.

Overall Evaluations of Marxism

Eight ways in which Marxism might still be relevant today

  • Transnational Capitalist Class (Sklaire)
  • Global Exploitation by TNCs (Wallerstein’s WST)
  • Evidence of elite control of superstructure – Independent schools links
  • Ideological Control – Agenda Setting and Jeremy Corbyn
  • Advertising and False Needs
  • Alienation – Amazon!
  • Contradictions in Capitalism – David Harvey
  • Marxism Conference – Organic Intellectuals?

Criticisms of Marxism

  • X – More complex class structure
  • X – Capitalism is less exploitative (welfare state)
  • X – Relative autonomy
  • X – Postmodernism – people are free, not under false consciousness
  • X – Work is less alienating for self-employed people
  • X – Scientific Marxism is economically deterministic (Interactionism)
  • X – Failure of communism in Eastern Europe
  • X – It is a metanarrative (Postmodernism)
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Gramsci’s Humanist Marxism

Gramsci (1891-1937) was the first leader of the Italian Communist Party during the 20s. He introduced the concept of hegemony or ideological and moral leadership of society, to explain how the ruling class maintains its position and argued that the proletariat must develop its own ‘counter-hegemony’ (or alternative set of ideas) to win leadership of society from the bourgeoisie.

Gramsci rejected economic determinism as an explanation of social change: the transition from capitalism to communism will never come about simply as a result of economic forces. Even though factors such as mass unemployment and falling wages may create the preconditions for revolution, ideas play a central role in determining whether or not change will actually occur.

This can be seen in Gramsci’s concept of hegemony. Gramsci saw the ruling class maintaining its power over society in two ways –

Coercion – it uses the army, police, prison and courts to force other classes to accept its rule

Consent (hegemony) – it uses ideas and values to persuade the subordinate classes that its rule is legitimate

Hegemony and Revolution

In advanced Capitalist societies, the ruling class rely heavily on consent to maintain their rule. Gramsci agrees with Marx that they are able to maintain consent because they control institutions such as religion, the media and the education system. However, according to Gramsci, the hegemony of the ruling class is never complete, for two reasons:

  • The ruling class are a minority – and as such they need to make ideological compromises with the middle classes in order to maintain power
  • The proletariat have dual consciousness. Their ideas are influenced not only by bourgeois ideology but also by the material conditions of their life – in short, they are aware of their exploitation and are capable or seeing through the dominant ideology.

Therefore, there is always the possibility of the ruling-class being undermined, especially in times of economic crises when the poverty of the working classes increases.

However, this will only lead to revolution if the proletariat are able to construct a counter-hegemonic bloc, in other words they must be able to offer moral and ideological leadership to society.

According to Gramsci, the working classes can only win this battle for ideas by producing their own ‘organic intellectuals’ – by forming a body of workers who are class conscious and are able to project a credible, alternative vision of what society would look like under communism.

Evaluation of Gramsci

It is true that many members of the working classes see through bourgeois ideology, for example the lads in Paul Willis’ study realised that education was not fair.

Gramsci has been criticised for under-emphasising the role of coercive political and economic forces in holding back the formation of a counter-hegemonic bloc – for example workers may be unable to form revolutionary vanguards because of the threat of state-violence.

Sources: Adapted from Robb Webb et Al’s Second Year A Level Sociology Text Book