All About Marxist Sociology

History and Overview of a Vibrant Subfield

French workers strike for better wages in 1990 and carry a banner with an image of Karl Marx, showing the lasting importance of his ideas and activism. Learn about Marxist sociology here.
Some of the public sector workers who went on strike against French Prime Minister Alain Juppe's welfare cuts carry a large banner of Karl Marx, 16th December 1995. Steve Eason/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Marxist sociology is a way of practicing sociology that draws methodological and analytic insights from the work of Karl Marx. Research conducted and theory produced from the Marxist perspective focuses on the key issues that concerned Marx: the politics of economic class, relations between labor and capital, relations between culture, social life, and economy, economic exploitation, and inequality, the connections between wealth and power, and the connections between critical consciousness and progressive social change.

There are significant overlaps between Marxist sociology and conflict theory, critical theory, cultural studies, global studies, the sociology of globalization, and the sociology of consumption. Many consider Marxist sociology a strain of economic sociology.

History and Development of Marxist Sociology

Though Marx was not a sociologist—he was a political economist—he is considered one of the founding fathers of the academic discipline of sociology, and his contributions remain mainstays in the teaching and practice of the field today.

Marxist sociology emerged in the immediate aftermath of Marx's work and life, at the end of the 19th century. Early pioneers of Marxist sociology included the Austrian Carl Grünberg and the Italian Antonio Labriola. Grünberg became the first director of the Institute for Social Research in Germany, later referred to as the Frankfurt School, which would become known as a hub of Marxist social theory and the birthplace of critical theory.

Notable social theorist who embraced and furthered the Marxist perspective at the Frankfurt School include Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Erich Fromm, and Herbert Marcuse.

The work of Labriola, meanwhile, proved fundamental in shaping the intellectual development of the Italian journalist and activist Antonio Gramsci.

Gramsci's writings from prison during the Fascist regime of Mussolini laid the groundwork for the development of a cultural strand of Marxism, the legacy of which features prominently within Marxist sociology.

On the cultural side in France, Marxist theory was adapted and developed by Jean Baudrillard, who focused on consumption rather than production. Marxist theory also shaped the development of the ideas of Pierre Bourdieu, who focused on relationships between economy, power, culture, and status. Louis Althusser was another French sociologist who made expanded on Marxism in his theory and writing, but he focused on social structural aspects rather than culture.

In the U.K., where much of Marx's analytic focus lied while he was alive, British Cultural Studies, also known as the Birmingham School of Cultural Studies was developed by those who focused on the cultural aspects of Marx's theory, like communication, media, and education. Notable figures include Raymond Williams, Paul Willis, and Stuart Hall.

Today, Marxist sociology thrives around the world. This vein of the discipline has a dedicated section of research and theory within the American Sociological Association. There are numerous academic journals that feature Marxist sociology.

Notable ones include Capital and ClassCritical SociologyEconomy and SocietyHistorical Materialism, and New Left Review.

Key Topics Within Marxist Sociology

The thing that unifies Marxist sociology is a focus on the relationships between economy, social structure, and social life. Key topics that fall within this nexus include:

  • The politics of economic class, especially the hierarchies, inequities, and inequalities of a society structured by class. Research in this vein often focuses on class-based oppression and how it is controlled and reproduced through the political system, as well as through education as a social institution.
  • Relations between labor and capital. Many sociologists focus on how the conditions of work, wages, and rights of workers differ from economy to economy (capitalism versus social, for example), and how these things shift as economic systems shift, and as technologies that influence production evolve. 
  • Relations between culture, social life, and economy. Marx paid close attention to the relationship between what he called the base and superstructure, or the connections between the economy and relations of production and the cultural realm of ideas, values, beliefs, and worldviews. Marxist sociologists today remain focused on the relations between these things, with a keen interest in how advanced global capitalism (and the mass consumerism that comes with it) influences our values, expectations, identities, relationships with others, and our everyday lives.
  • The connections between critical consciousness and progressive social change. Much of Marx's theoretical work and activism was focused on understanding how to liberate the consciousness of the masses from domination by the capitalist system, and following that, to foster egalitarian social change. Marxist sociologists often focus on how the economy and our social norms and values shape how we understand our relationship to the economy and our place within the social structure relative to others. There is a general consensus among Marxist sociologists that the development of a critical consciousness of these things is a necessary first step to the overthrow of unjust systems of power and oppression.

Though Marxist sociology is rooted in a focus on class, today the approach is also used by sociologists to study issues of gender, race, sexuality, ability, and nationality, among other things.

Offshoots and Related Fields

Marxist theory is not just popular and fundamental within sociology but more broadly within the social sciences, humanities, and where the two meet. Areas of study connected to Marxist sociology include Black Marxism, Marxist Feminism, Chicano Studies, and Queer Marxism.

Updated by Nicki Lisa Cole, Ph.D.