Marx, Social Change, & Revolution Research Paper Starter

Marx, Social Change, & Revolution

(Research Starters)

Karl Marx was both a philosopher and a political agitator. He thus often thought about questions relating to social change and revolution. However, Marx was not content to analyze each in isolation as if it were a self-contained idea. Like every other idea he pondered, Marx examined social change and revolution in light of his all-encompassing theory which sought to explain how societies progress materially, economically, and socio-politically. Within his system social change is a by-product of class struggle and revolution that is as much a permanent state of mind as an actual event marking capitalism's anticlimactic end.

Keywords Bourgeoisie; Class-for-Itself; Class Struggle; Dictatorship of the Proletariat; Forces of Production; Historical Materialism; Labor-Power; Labor-Time; Lumpenproletariat; Means of Production; Permanent Revolution; Petty Bourgeoisie; Proletariat; Relations of Production; Secondary Exploitation; Superstructure; Surplus Value

Marx, Social Change


At heart, Marx was an ideologue, a philosopher convinced he had discovered the immutable laws governing social change. To Marx, only economics mattered. Free will, shifting societal values and aspirations, population growth and dislocation, and many other possible causes of social change mattered little in the Marxian universe. Rather, Marx believed, how we produce and exchange the goods necessary for our survival shapes how we relate to each other. Moreover, he claimed that in order to take advantage of new knowledge and technology people always have organized themselves around said production differently at distinct times in history. However, he believed, society has often lagged behind these changes, creating friction and conflict until a new social order more conducive to the emerging economic order replaces the old social order (Holton, 1981).

At best, social change is an uneven process that continually pits emerging interests against entrenched ones. That is why Marx famously concluded in the Communist Manifesto "the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles." Yet the idea of class struggle itself was far from new in Marx's day. Aristotle in fact wrote about class and conflict in the fourth century BCE, observing that in democracies the poor ruled, while in oligarchies the rich did. Further, he believed that politics reconciled the interests of the many with those of the few, sometimes equitably, sometimes not (Arendt, 2002).

A more contemporary writer on the subject, the early nineteenth century social theorist Henri de Saint-Simon, differentiated rich from poor as well. He went one important step further, though, by explicitly distinguishing "producers" or laborers, from mere consumers or property-owners (Kim, n.d.). Marx soon turned this purely descriptive distinction into a socioeconomic dynamo of the first order. Indeed, the impetus for all social change, he asserted, emanated from the class struggle between workers, or the proletariat, and owners, or the bourgeoisie. However, Marx believed that the ultimate source of this change lay elsewhere: in the inevitable conflict between the economic forces of production and the communal relations of production, a dialectical process he called historical materialism.

Here, man is defined entirely by what he makes, by the labor this production requires, and by the interactions with others production necessitates. Broadly speaking, labor, technical expertise, and the organizational ingenuity needed to make efficient use of both make up the forces of production. The relations of production, conversely, arise from the social interactions among workers and between workers and the owners of the means of production, who, in capitalism's case, are the bourgeoisie. Constantly in flux, the forces and relations of production are all but guaranteed to clash, with the more basic of the two, the forces of production, prevailing. Changes in the way things are made, in effect, require new forms of communication and cooperation, giving rise, over time, to new relations of production.

Further Insights

In very real and persistent ways, then, the economic base of a society periodically reinvents itself, prompting broader sociopolitical and cultural change. To perpetuate itself materially society must have order, so every economic system gives rise to a corresponding societal superstructure. Courts, government bureaucracies, social mores, family and religious values, and even culture itself all stem from the economic base they buttress. When this base falters, the social fabric woven around it inevitably unravels (Wacquant, 1985).

In capitalism's case, Marx believed owners would ultimately bankrupt themselves trying to remain competitive, and that this base would literally consume itself at humanity's expense. In effect, things would get far worse before they got better. It was and is a bleak vision. And herein lies one of Marx's more uncomfortable beliefs: that lasting social change would come at a terrible price. The capitalist system would have to self-destruct before a more equitable socialist system could take its place. It must, in other words, fail so many so miserably that the dictatorship of the proletariat following it would be welcomed with open arms. Then and only then would the real revolution occur as private property gave way to collective ownership, class distinctions morphed into a society of equals, and thinly veiled authoritarianism transformed into rule by consensus.

Such, at least, was Marx's utopian vision of the future, one so ideal that there would be no further need for a state. In the meantime, increasing swathes of humanity not only would but had to live and die in the direst of conditions. For, if nothing else, this utter deprivation will fan the flames of class struggle to a fever pitch, hastening capitalism's demise. There is a logic, then, to Marx's rather dour prescription for social change. Incremental reforms like reducing the length of the workday or banning child labor, he believed, were no more than temporary ploys owners, citing declining profits, would revoke the minute workers put their own parochial interests above those of their class as a whole.

Marx's Classes

But what exactly did Marx mean by "class?" Marx himself insisted that people, even if they are in similar circumstances, are not a class per se unless they are aware of their shared relationship. A hereditary caste was thus not a class in the Marxian sense, and neither are the upper, middle, and lower income bracketed classes sociologists study today. Of those he did identify, the largest and, from his point of view the most important by far, was the working class or proletariat. Technically speaking, anyone who drew a regular wage belonged because, owning no private property or any means of production, these workers were reduced to selling their labor-power to survive.

Capitalists, or the bourgeoisie, on the other hand owned the means of production outright and purchased workers' labor-time. Sooner or later, though, they would find ways to boost earnings by increasing the tempo of production but keeping workers daily wages the same. Marx saw this purloining as inherently exploitive. Those who enjoyed wealth did not actually produce it, and those who did produce it lived in poverty. However, the latter had no "legitimate" means of righting this wrong because laws, governments, and religious and social institutions all existed in order to validate the existing forms of ownership and deflect any and all challenges to these forms.

A keen social observer, Marx also acknowledged the transient existence of more marginal classes: most notably the petty bourgeoisie and the lumpenproletariat. Primarily artisans, shopkeepers, and small farmers, the petty bourgeoisie owned their means of production and, doing so, worked for themselves. Until, that is, a declining capitalism would no longer accommodate small businesses, at which point the petty bourgeoisie would enter the ranks of the disaffected proletariat. The lumpenproletariat, on the other hand, didn't work at all. Its ranks were populated by those farthest removed from the means of production: the chronically unemployed, the unemployable, and the criminals. Marx predicted that, when push came to shove, the lumpenproletariat would align with the proletariats, albeit tenuously, since the promised socialist revolution would provide for everyone's needs regardless of their social status.

Additionally, there were the peasantry, the tenant farmers Marx considered part of the proletariat. Like the...

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