Outline and discuss the contribution made by Marxism to our understanding of society
Outline and discuss the contribution made by Marxism to our understanding of society
Within sociology there are many varieties of conflict perspectives. Marxism is one of these. It is both a structural and a conflict theory. From a conflict perspective, it views society as being comprised of separate groups each with different interests. From a structural perspective, Marxists analyse the way society as a whole fits together. Marxism embraces an , a , and a view of social change which has influenced multiple political ideologies and social movements throughout history including the socialist parties of Italy, Russia (USSR) and Cuba.
Marxism was named after the German philosopher Karl 1818 -1883. It is a theory that is based on materialism within society, and the struggle and conflict for control over material things. In his analysis of Capitalism, Marx distinguished between the main social classes which he called the Bourgeoisie (capitalist class who own the means of production), and the Proletariat (working class who only own labour power). One of his arguments is that capitalist society is based on work and the production of goods.
Engels and Zaretsky have used the Marxist theory to highlight the relationship between capitalism and the family. Engels (1884) took an evolutionary view of the family and attempted to trace its origin through time. He argued that the role of the family changed with the mode of production. He also suggested that during the primitive communism era, the means of production were commonly owned and the family structure which existed was in the form of society itself. Engels also stated that the monogamous nuclear family was constructed with the introduction of capitalism. The aim of this institution was to solve the problem of inheritance such as the ownership of private property and the means of production. Zaretsky (1976), agrees with this theory and sees the family as an essential tool of capitalism. However, he elaborates this argument and suggests that the family is also a vital unit for the consumption of the products of capitalism. These Marxist views have contributed to various sociological perspectives, and has also influenced other conflict theories including the Feminist view of the role of women in the family. It also contrasts sharply with other sociologists, including the Functionalist views of Emile Durkheim, who argued that the family benefits both society as a whole, and the individual members of the family. It has sparked debates concerning the role and function of the family structure and its origins, with anthropologists arguing the reliability of Engels discovery.
This is a preview of the whole essay
Marxism has therefore also contributed to society on the subject of gender inequality with the foundation of Marxist feminists being laid by Engels. He analysed gender oppression, in The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884) and argued that the subordination of women was not biological but rather a social construct. He stated that men's efforts to control women's labour had gradually become institutionalised through the nuclear family. This theory has influenced sociologists such as Coontz and Henderson (1986), to explain the subordination of women (Haralambos & Holborn, 2008). Other sociologists such as Radical Feminist Kate Millett, have used this theory as a base to investigate further the factors which affect patriarchy in today’s society. It can be said therefore, that Marxism has been influential in shaping a sociological theory which is still relevant, if not controversial, in modern society.
Marx also suggested that society is unaware of the true nature of their situation and stated that the separate classes, and in particular the majority class which is the proletariat, exist in a state of false class consciousness (Haralambos et al, 2008). This view of society’s consciousness has influenced sociologists such as Neo-Marxists and Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci (1891-1937), as an Italian sociologist and political activist, is renowned for his theory of cultural hegemony, which describes how the state uses cultural institutions to maintain power in a capitalist society. He suggested that the Bourgeoisie could not rely on the false class consciousness referred to by Marx, and argued that all members of the Proletariat had some awareness of their exploitation. Gramsci stated that for the Bourgeoisie to be able to maintain its leadership or hegemony, that they would need support from other members of society. This perspective influenced Gramsci to propose a ‘War of Position’ (McGuire & McQuarie, 1994). He proposed that an anti-capitalist revolutionary could create a proletarian culture whose native value system counters the cultural hegemony of the bourgeoisie. This new proletarian culture would therefore increase class consciousness and result in a revolution among the social classes (Haralambos et al, 2008). This view, influenced by Marxism, led to Gramsci becoming one of the most important Marxist thinkers of the twentieth century. He became a founding member and leader of the Communist Party of Italy, and his ideas greatly influenced Italian communism. After his party was outlawed by Benito Mussolini’s fascists, Gramsci was arrested and imprisoned (1926). In prison he continued writing, and his prison notebooks have greatly influenced how power and Ideology have been theorised by later Marxists such as Althusser, Laclau, and Hall.
When discussing the Marxist view of false class consciousness, the abuse of power by the Bourgeoisie also becomes highlighted. Traditional Marxists argue that it is this abuse of power which forces the proletariat to submit to a situation over which they have little control. Engels suggested that historically the state did not exist, and that societies were essentially agricultural with no surplus production of goods (Haralambos & Holborn, 2004). From this perspective, the state can be viewed as being necessary for holding classes ‘in check’. This Marxist theory has contributed to further investigations by various sociologists including Structural Marxist Louis Althusser. He argued that Marx's thought has been fundamentally misunderstood and underestimated, however he saw a weakness in the Marxist account of capitalism. Agreeing that capitalism is inherently exploitative, he employed a critical approach to examine the connections between social structure, power and culture, and how this influences society. Althusser attempted to develop a scientific theory as to how society functions in order to maintain the conditions favourable to capitalism. From his findings he suggested that class is not inherent, but culturally produced, and that beliefs and behaviours are products of ideology. He suggests, like Marx and Engels that ideology controls us through Repressive State Apparatuses including government, army, and police who act to coerce the working class into complying with the will of the Bourgeoisie. However, he also investigated the influence of Ideological State Apparatuses including education, religion, family, and media. He argues that these also manipulate the working class into accepting capitalism. This perspective has been influential to sociologists such as Ralph Miliband (1969), who argued that the ruling classes use the state as its instrument to dominate society. For Miliband, the state is dominated by a group of elites who come from the same background as the capitalist class. He argued that state officials share the same interests as owners of capital and are linked to them through a wide range of social, economic, and political ties. This is in agreement with Gramsci's theory that the state is only one of the institutions within society that helps to maintain the hegemony of the ruling class.
Marxism has inspired sociologists to take a more critical view of the capitalist society in which we live. Althusser (1971) argued that education is an ideological state apparatus which helps pass on the ruling class, and aids in the reproduction of an efficient and obedient work force. Schools achieve this through transmitting the capitalist ideology, and by training future workers to become submissive to authority. Bowles and Gintis (1976) supported Althusser’s ideas and argue that parts of the curriculum within the education system correspond greatly to the needs of capitalism. They have also highlighted the importance of class and achievement within the educational system (Haralambos et al, 2008). Conflict perspectives such as feminists and Neo Marxists; share the fundamental view that groups in society have different interests and most agree that improvements within the educational system will only take place if it is accompanied by wider social changes.
From a conflict perspective, Marxism provides a basis for study with a clear starting point, and from there, it has been possible to develop arguments about the development of society. Many of Marx arguments have been developed and applied to modern society, including his critical views of the structure of society as a whole, and the functions of the individuals within it. Much of his original arguments or suggestions may be viewed as dated or redundant, however modern sociologists including Neo-Marxists, Feminists, and Radical Feminists, have developed both criticisms and responses to Marx theory and applied them to modern developments within society.