Karl Marx's Greatest Hits

A Review of Marx's Most Important Contributions to Sociology

Visitors walk among some of the 500, one meter tall statues of German political thinker Karl Marx on display on May 5, 2013 in Trier, Germany. Hannelore Foerster/Getty Images

Karl Marx, born May 5, 1818, is considered one of the founding thinkers of sociology, along with Émile Durkheim, Max Weber, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Harriet Martineau. Though he lived and died before sociology was a discipline in its own right, his writings as a political-economist provided a still deeply important foundation for theorizing the relationship between economy and political power. In this post, we honor Marx's birth by celebrating some of his most important contributions to sociology.

Marx's Dialectic & Historical Materialism

Marx is typically remembered for giving sociology a conflict theory of how society operates. He formulated this theory by first turning an important philosophical tenet of the day on its head--the Hegelian Dialectic. Hegel, a leading German philosopher during Marx's early studies, theorized that social life and society grew out of thought. Looking at the world around him, with the growing influence of capitalist industry on all other facets of society, Marx saw things differently. He inverted Hegel's dialectic, and theorized instead that it is the existing forms of economy and production--the material world--and our experiences within these that shape thought and consciousness. Of this, he wrote in Capital, Volume 1, "The ideal is nothing else than the material world reflected by the human mind, and translated into forms of thought." Core to all of his theory, this perspective became known as "historical materialism."

Base and Superstructure

Marx gave sociology some important conceptual tools as he developed his historical materialist theory and method for studying society. In The German Ideology, written with Friedrich Engels, Marx explained that society is divided into two realms: the base, and the superstructure.

He defined the base as the material aspects of society: that which allow for production of goods. These include the means of production--factories and material resources--as well as the relations of production, or the relationships between people involved, and the distinct roles they play (like laborers, managers, and factory owners), as required by the system. Per his historical materialist account of history and how society functions, it is the base that determines the superstructure, whereby the superstructure is all other aspects of society, like our culture and ideology (world views, values, beliefs, knowledge, norms and expectations); social institutions like education, religion, and media; the political system; and even the identities we subscribe to.

Class Conflict and Conflict Theory

When looking at society this way, Marx saw that the distribution of power to determine how society functioned was structured in a top-down manner, and was tightly controlled by the wealthy minority who owned and controlled the means of production. Marx and Engels laid out this theory of class conflict in The Communist Manifesto, published in 1848. They argued that the "bourgeoisie," the minority in power, created class conflict by exploiting the labor power of the "proletariat," the workers who made the system of production run by selling their labor to the ruling class.

By charging far more for the goods produced than they paid the proletariats for their labor, the owners of the means of production earned profit. This arrangement was the basis of the capitalist economy at the time that Marx and Engels wrote, and it remains the basis of it today. Because wealth and power are unevenly distributed between these two classes, Marx and Engels argued that society is in a perpetual state of conflict, wherein the ruling class work to maintain the upper-hand over the majority working class, in order to retain their wealth, power, and overall advantage. (To learn the details of Marx's theory of the labor relations of capitalism, see Capital, Volume 1.)

False Consciousness and Class Consciousness

In The German Ideology and The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels explained that the rule of the bourgeoisie is achieved and maintained in the realm of the superstructure.

That is, the basis of their rule is ideological. Through their control of politics, media, and educational institutions, those in power propagate a worldview that suggests that the system as it is is right and just, that is is designed for the good of all, and that it is even natural and inevitable. Marx referred to the inability of the working class to see and understand the nature of this oppressive class relationship as "false consciousness," and theorized that eventually, they would develop a clear and critical understanding of it, which would be "class consciousness." With class consciousness, they would have awareness of the realities of the classed society in which they lived, and of their own role in reproducing it. Marx reasoned that once class consciousness had been achieved, a worker-led revolution would overthrow the oppressive system.

Summation

These are the ideas that are central to Marx's theory of economy and society, and are what made him so important to the field of sociology. Of course, Marx's written work is quite voluminous, and any dedicated student of sociology should engage in a close reading of as many of his works as possible, especially as his theory remains relevant today. While the class hierarchy of society is more complex today than that which Marx theorized, and capitalism now operates on a global scale, Marx's observations about the dangers of commodified labor, and about the core relationship between base and superstructure continue to serve as important analytic tools for understanding how the unequal status quo is maintained, and how one can go about disrupting it.

Interested readers can find all of Marx's writing digitally archived here.