Can you please explain Marx's social-political theory? I am really confused!
To explain all of Marx's social and political theory in any way that would do it justice is well beyond the
scope of any short reply on this web site. What I will do is give an account of what I see as the main
defining features of Marxism in the hope that this will provide a helpful introduction.
One of Karl Marx's famous sayings involves a claim that the job of philosophy is not to be content with
interpreting the world, but to change it. Marx was a revolutionary socialist and his ideas must always
be seen in this context. He philosophised so that he could provide an understanding of the world that
involved a guide to changing it.
Marx viewed society as one holistic entity. Society, as a human construct, contains many features
that, at first sight, may seem to exist independently of one another. For example, religion, politics,
education, the legal system and economics may all seem to exist entirely independently of one
another. Marx believed, however, that these apparently discrete human phenomena are connected at
a much more fundamental level. They interact with each other and change each other in this
interaction. Society can be viewed as the dynamic process where by different, apparently discrete,
phenomena constantly influence one another through their interaction.
In this dynamic process of interaction, not all the components have an equal weighting. Marx viewed
that the mode of production, the way in which society created and distributed its economic goods was
of fundamental importance in influencing the other components. The particular mode of production of
any society would play a pivotal role in influencing the form of the other components in the system.
The mode of production in any society would therefore play a very significant role in the way that the
society educated its members, the manner in which politics was conducted, the aspirations and
beliefs of its members and so on. For this reason, Marx is sometimes described as an economic
determinist. It is economics that dictates the specific manner in which a society operates. In actual
fact, the term economic determinist is on oversimplification. Marx understood that, although not
pivotal, the other features in society could have an impact both on each other and back on to the
mode of production. Marx's insight was that the mode of production was more significant in
determining the nature of a society than the other features.
With this view of the significance of the mode of production, Marx draws his primary attention to the
specific nature of the mode of production, both in capitalist society and in pre-capitalist societies.
Marx saw that what typified the mode of production in both capitalist and pre-capitalist society was
the division into economic classes. In any society there existed a class of individuals who owned and
controlled the means of production (the land, resources, technology) and those who didn't. When the
mode of production is characterised by a division into economic classes, the whole of society is
structured around this division. Societies change when one class replaces another as that which
owns the means of production. Such change only arises as the result of physical struggle between
In capitalist society, Marx saw that there were two fundamental classes. There is the bourgeoisie (or
ruling class) who own the means of production and make profit from this ownership, and the
proletariat (or working class) who own no means of production and are forced to sell their labour
power (to work) for the bourgeoisie in order to survive. The two classes have opposing interests. If
the bourgeoisie want to make more profit they have to pay the workers less or make them work
longer. If the proletariat want better working conditions or higher pay, the bourgeoisie will be forced to
cut down their profits. Because the bourgeoisie are in competition with one another (competition for
share of market etc), it is not in their self-interest to give such concessions to their workers. Thus
Marx saw the mode of production in capitalist society as typified by a conflict between these two
fundamental classes. Whilst capitalist society is in existence, the bourgeoisie are the dominant class.
All other features of capitalist society can, according to Marx, be seen as representing and reinforcing
the dominance of the bourgeoisie over the proletariat. The education system in capitalist society, for
example, perpetuates such class rule. It teaches working class children the values of conformity and
obedience to authority. It tells them that if they work hard enough they will be successful, and tells
them nothing of the vast inequality of power between the two classes. Religion, as another classic
example, preaches to the working class that earthly suffering is inevitable, that liberation from
oppressive conditions comes only in the after life. The media portrays economic inequality as natural
and, by dictating the political agenda, circumvents any radical critique of society. The military, police
and legal system all operate to maintain the dominance of the bourgeoisie.
For Marx, economics and politics are inseparable. The class nature of capitalist society determines
the range of political discourse, the means by which political decision-making is carried out, and, to a
large extent, the individual political beliefs and aspirations of people living in that society.
Marx wrote an extensive critique of the exploitation at the heart of the capitalism and predicted that
such an economic system was inherently unstable and would never be capable of satisfying even the
very basic needs of humanity. Even in Marx's day, capitalism had achieved remarkable technological
achievements and yet was unable to use these to make a more humane world for the mass of
ordinary people. Modern Marxists will point to the seemingly inherent contradiction at the heart of the
capitalist economy — the fact that incredible technological advancement exists alongside economic
stability, mass poverty and misery for a large percentage of the global population. This contradiction,
they argue, provides the proof that capitalism is an inherently inefficient and inhumane economic
system. The alternative to this economic system is a mode of production based on a classless society
where production is collectively owned. This system is socialism or communism.
Marx did not believe that a revolutionary change from capitalist society to socialism was inevitable.
He did, however, believe that the potential for socialism was created by capitalism. Capitalism brings
vast numbers of people into workplaces where they are forced to work alongside each other. The
proletariat grows as capitalism progresses. At the same time, the competition within the bourgeoisie
becomes more intense. Marx believed that social change would only occur if the proletariat
recognised itself as a class, organised itself effectively and seized the means of production from the
bourgeoisie. In seizing power it would effectively become the dominant class. For the first time in
human history the mass of people would collectively own the means of production. They would be
able to control production and direct it towards the human needs neglected by the bourgeoisie's drive
for profit. This would be the socialist revolution.
Marx wrote very little about the specific nature of any future socialist society. It would be safe to say,
however, that once the mode of production has been transformed, there would be a corresponding
shift in the other components of society. Education, media, the legal system etc. would all be affected