Karl Marx was a German social theorist born in 1818. Like many other 19th century Social theorists, Marx refused to see the distinction between what today, we label as ‘Philosophy’ and ‘Sociology’. Instead Marx, along with other theorists (Smith, Weber,) believed that these two areas, though not given names in the 19th century, of thought constituted one single field of academic work and sociological thought rather than different areas of social enquiry. (Lee 1983/2000) In 1835, Karl Marx began to study the subject Law at university in the German city of Bonn.
Completing his studies in 1841 at the university of Berlin after being moved their by his father in 1837. (Scott, 1994/2005) After completing his studies, Karl Marx, went on to become a journalist and following on from this in 1841 the editor of a radical bourgeoisie newspaper. The newspaper being, the ‘Rheinsche Zeitung’. However as a direct result due to pressure from the Russian Tsar, Nicholas 1, the Prussian government closed the paper down, this was pressure occurred as result of an article Karl Marx printed within the newspaper. Following this in 1843, Marx married his childhood sweetheart, Jenny von Westphalen and moved to Paris.
During his time in Paris, a little over two years, Karl Marx became editor of the ‘Franco – German Annals’, and also during this period met Friedrich Engles. Friedrich Engles was the son of a wealthy industrialist with factors situation within England. Engles became an important and influential to Karl Marx as well as a lifelong friend, collaborator and a much ‘put upon patron’. (Scott, 1983/2005) In 1845, due to the threats and changes created and influenced by the French government, the ‘Franco – German Annals’ were banned and through financial support from Friedrich Engles, Marx moved to Belgium.
An important event occurred in 1846 for Marx, this was the establishment of a ‘Communist Correspondence Committee’. During this year, Marx also completed ‘The Communist Manifesto’, with the help of Friedrich Engles. (Lee. 1983/2000) However this manifesto was not published until 1848, and following the publication, both Marx and Engles, were expelled from Belgium. Following this Karl Marx moved to Cologne, where he founds and publishes the ‘New Rhenish Gazette’. In the year of 1849, as result of being expelled from Cologne, Marx moves back to France and then onto England.
It is here in England that Karl Marx experiences and lives within extreme poverty. (Giddens, 1989/2005) It is also in England that Karl Marx spends his final years, dying in 1883 due to cancer of the bladder. However during his time in England, some of Marx’s most important concepts, theories and analogies were written and documented, though not necessarily published until a later date. This occurred mainly in 1867, when Marx wrote the first volume of Das Kapital.
This publication expanded upon the earlier concept and theories of surplus value, division of labour and the industrial reserve army. The main concept and key theory for Karl Marx, was class. This provides an extremely useful means of both describing and explaining the inequalities, social divisions and changes that were in existence within society and had occurred previously. In discussing the theory of class, Marx described and defined the system that of mainly 2 tiers, the Bourgeoisie, who were the land owners, factory owners etc, and the Proletariat, who were the workers.
Marx’s theory of the class system is closely linked to that of social stratification, as it documents all of the inequalities of conditions, the opportunities for those within the system and the outcomes of these. (Haralambos, 2004) Karl Marx states that as a result of be less affluent and lower in terms of the socio-economic description within society, and then opportunities are more likely to be extremely limited as a result of the inequality confined by society and restricted by the bourgeoisie The limitations effecting the proletariat would be those of education and therefore future employment, and health.
Both of these, causing conflict between the classes and therefore affecting social integration. (Scott, 1994/2005) As mentioned Karl Marx developed the idea of social stratification. This theory applied to the study of structured social inequality, poverty and class. (Scott 1994/2005) Therefore social stratification is a key element of macro-sociology. In relation to this social stratification theory and concept, Karl Marx defined class as consisting of the aristocracy, though a small proportion, the Bourgeoisie, and the Proletariat.
The Bourgeoisie according to the Marxist theory, control the economic base, this is because they are the factory owners, therefore result in controlling consciousness and determining ‘reality’. This is due to control of the subordinate political and social institutes. (Giddens, 2001/2005) Marx commented on class consciousness as needing a revolutionary development, Marx stated that this would occur due to the distinctive way in which life and cultural activities were represented and resulting in conflict within society.
Karl went on to state that due to the conflict occurring and been seen by the lower socio-economic class this would result in the class joining together against capitalism. In effect trade unions today’s. However this theory of the proletariat class being class conscious and developing a revolution to overthrow capitalism and leave the resultant being communism has not occurred, and subsequently, in today’s society it is difficult to distinguish sufficiently between the class system as we do not use the 3 tier system envisaged by Marx, which was limited and did not develop instead we work on a much more complex system.
This failure of class consciousness also includes the easier and less problematic concept of class identification and awareness. (Scott, 1994/2005) Karl Marx also discussed the theory of ‘division of labour’. He argued that the market process’s expressed an underlying division of class power and that this factor of the whole of the socio-economic complex and encompasses individuals, motives and actions. This theory reflects the struggle over the distribution of the surplus product, in Marxist terms labour. This results from both the owners and non-owners of the means of production.
Karl Marx’s also suggests that the Bourgeoisie only pays the Proletariat sufficiently enough to maintain themselves and to reproduce in order to create the next generation of labourers, but not to live life in luxury, therefore this labour can be explained as surplus value of a workforce. (Giddens, 1994/2005) Another key idea developed by Marx which has merit was that of commodity fetishism. Karl Marx makes a distinction between use-value and exchange value. The use value representing the judgement of how useful an object would be whilst the exchange value representing what it is this object would fetch in exchange for goods on the market.
The exchange values depend upon the ratio of the labour times currently needed to produce the objects. (Scott 1994/2005) The division of labour is also linked to the complex relationships of interdependence that exist within a capitalist society. The theory commodity fetishism is a delusion, which is one aspect of the analysis of ideology in capitalist society therefore limited in what it can achieve. However the underlying relationships are hidden from our perception and the understanding of the world is built only upon perceptions. (Giddens 1994/2005)
As shown Karl Marx has introduced several debates with regards to consumption and consumer society. Marx has also created a clear theory within the lass system and how power operates our reality and is therefore crucial in terms of how society has been run under capitalism. The issues raised by Marx in relation to class based social divisions though relevant are extremely outdated and limited for use in today’s society. Though his theories on the economic base of society resulting in inequality provide and important and justified argument against the excesses of postmodernism.
This argument also necessarily brings in the issues if class divisions and inequalities as part of the production process and surplus labour though not necessarily applied in today’s society. Though the issue of class in today’s society is still of importance, these theories are not necessarily applied today, but do provide a basis for many of the arguments especially those surrounding capitalism. Today in society we are less class conscious though very materialistic and operate in other forms of inequality such as race, gender and sexual preferences.