Thursday, July 7, 2011

4. Sociological Thinkers:

4. Sociological Thinkers:

(a) Karl Marx- Historical materialism, mode of production, alienation, class struggle.

Marx’s general ideas about society are known as his theory of historical materialism. Materialism is the basis of his sociological thought because, for Marx, material conditions or economic factors affect the structure and development of society. His theory is that material conditions essentially comprise technological means of production and human society is formed by the forces and relations of production.

Historical materialism is based upon a philosophy of human history. But it is not, strictly speaking, a philosophy of history. It is best understood as sociological theory of human progress. As a theory it provides a scientific and systematic research programme for empirical investigations. At the same time, it also claims to contain within it a revolutionary programme of intervention into society. It is this unique combination of scientific and

revolutionary feature which is the hallmark of Marx’s original formulation.

He says that new developments of productive forces of society come in conflict with existing relations of production. When people become conscious of the state of conflict, they wish to bring an end to it. This period of history is called by Marx the period of social revolution. The revolution brings about resolution of conflict. It means that new forces of production take roots and give rise to new relations of production. Thus, you can see that for Marx, it is the growth of new productive forces which outlines the course of human history. The productive forces are the powers society uses to produce material conditions of life. For Marx, human history is an account of development and consequences of new forces of material production. This is the reason why his view of history is given the name

of historical materialism.


Marx recognised that without culture there can be no production possible. For him, mode of production includes social relations of production which are relations of domination and subordination into which men and women are born or involuntarily enter. The reproduction both of life and of the material means of life cannot be understood without turning to the culture, norms and the rituals of the working people over whom the rulers rule. An understanding of working class culture contributes to an understanding of the mode of production. Class is a category that describes people in relationships over time, and

the ways in which they become conscious of these relationships. It also describes the ways in which they separate, unite, enter into struggle, form institutions and transmit values in class ways. Class is an ‘economic’ and also a ‘cultural’ formation. It is impossible to reduce class into a pure economic category.


Marx’s introduced an entirely new element to understand the structure of each society. It was derived from the relations between social classes. These relations were determined by the mode of production. It was this feature of historical materialism which was widely accepted by later sociologists as offering a more promising starting point for exact and

realistic investigations of the causes of social change.

Secondly, historical materialism introduced into sociology a new method of inquiry, new concepts, and a number of bold hypotheses to explain the rise, development, and decline of particular forms of society.

Thirdly, originality of historical materialism was in its immense effort to synthesise in a critical way, the entire legacy of social knowledge since Aristotle. Marx’s purpose was to achieve a better understanding of the conditions of human development. With this understanding he tried to accelerate the actual process by which mankind was moving toward an association, in which the free development of each was the condition for

the free development of all.

Lastly, historical materialism not only provides a method to understand the existing social reality; it is a method to understand the existence of other methods. It is a persistent critique of the aims and methods of social sciences.


People need food, clothing, shelter and other necessities of life in order to survive. They cannot get all these things ready-made from nature. To survive, they produce material goods from objects found in nature. Material production has always been and still is the basis of human existence. For Karl Marx, the history of human societies is the story of how people relate to one another in their efforts to make a living. He said, “The first

historical act is…the production of material life.


The forces of production express the degree to which human beings control nature. The more advanced the productive forces are, greater is their control over the nature and vice versa. You can say the forces of production are the ways in which material goods are produced. They include the technological know-how, the types of equipment in use and goods being produced for example, tools, machinery, labour and the levels of technology

are all considered to be the forces of production.


The relations of production are the social relations found among the people involved in the process of production. These social relations are determined by the level and character of the development of productive forces.


In Marx’s writing, stages of social history are differentiated not by what human beings produce but by how, or by what means, they produce the material goods for subsistence. In this way, we can say that historical periods are founded and differentiated on the basis of the modes of material production. In other words, at the basis of history are successive modes of material production.

A mode of production is the relationship between the relations of production and

the forces of production. Modes of production can be distinguished from one another by different relationships between the forces and relations of production.


Ancient Mode of Production Refers to a production system where the master has the right of ownership over the slave and appropriates the products of his labour through servitude, without allowing the slave to reproduce.

Slaves Class of producers in the ancient mode of production, who are directly

controlled by the masters as their private ‘property’.

Capitalist Mode of Production Refers to a production system where the owners of means of production, capitalists, extract surplus labour from the proletariats in the form of profits.

Capitalists The ruling class in capitalism who control the means of production.

Bourgeoisie The class of capitalists who, in all developed countries, are now almost

exclusively in possession of all the means of consumption and of all the raw materials and instruments.

Workers Class of producers in the capitalist mode of production who have nothing except

their labour power as their only means of livelihood. Their surplus labour is

appropriated by the capitalists through profit.

Feudal Mode of Production Refers to a production system where the lords appropriate surplus labour from the serfs in the form of rent.

Lords The ruling class in feudalism, who exercise indirect control over serfs.

Serfs Class of producers in the feudal mode of production whose surplus labour is

appropriated through rent.

Asiatic Mode of Production Refers to community-based production system where ownership of land is communal and the existence of is expressed through the real or imaginary unity of these communities.


The word ‘class’ originated from the Latin term ‘classis’ which refers to a group called to arms, a division of the people.

Marx recognised class as a unique feature of capitalist societies. This is one reason why he did not analyse the class structure and class relations in other forms of society.

In Capital (1894), Under the title of ‘Social Classes’ Marx distinguished three classes, related to the three sources of income: (a) owners of simple labour power or labourers whose main source of income is labour; (b) owners of capital or capitalists whose main source

of income is profit or surplus value; and (c) landowners whose main source of income is ground rent. In this way the class structure of modern capitalist society is composed of three major classes viz., salaried labourers or workers, capitalists and landowners.

At a broader level, society could be divided into two major classes i.e. the ‘haves’ (owners of land and / or capital) often called as bourgeoisie and the ‘have-nots’ (those who own nothing but their own labour power), often called as proletariats.

Criteria for Determination of Class

For this exercise, one could say that a social class has two major criteria: (i) objective criteria (ii) subjective criteria.

i) Objective Criteria: People sharing the same relationship to the means of production comprise a class. Let us understand it through an example – all labourers have a similar relationship with the landowners. On the other hand all the landowners, as a class, have a similar relationship with the land and labourers. In this way, labourers on one hand and landowners on the other hand could be seen as classes. However, for Marx, this relationship alone is not sufficient to determine the class. According to him it is not sufficient for class to be ‘class in itself’ but it should also be class for itself. What does this mean? By ‘class in itself’ he means the objective criteria of any social class. Obviously, Marx is not simply satisfied with objective criteria above. Hence he equally emphasises upon the other major criteria i.e., “Class for itself” or the subjective criteria.

ii) Subjective Criteria: Any collectivity or human grouping with a similar relationship would make a category, not a class, if subjective criteria are not included. The members of any one class not only have similar consciousness but they also share a similar consciousness of the fact that they belong to the same class. This similar consciousness of a class serves as the basis for uniting its members for organising social action. Here this similar class consciousness towards acting together for their common interests is what Marx calls – “Class for itself”.


The changes in the mode of production are essentially changes in the forces of production and relations of production. In primitive communal stage there was no surplus production

and hence it had no inequality and exploitation caused by the private ownership of means of production. The means of production were common property of the community. With the development and improvements in the forces of production there was increased productivity. This caused private ownership of means of production and change in the relations of production. This marked the end of primitive-communal system and thus began the long history of inequality, exploitation and class conflict, coinciding with the emergence of slave-owning society.

In the slave-owning society the class conflict between the slave owners and slaves reached a peak causing a change in the mode of production from slavery to feudalistic mode of production. Marx has said that the history of hitherto existing society is a history of class struggle. This means that the entire history of society is studded with different phases and periods of class struggle. This history of class struggle begins in the slave-owning society and continues through feudal society where this class struggle is between classes of the feudal lords and the landless agricultural labourers or serfs. Due to change in mode of production and class struggle a new stage of society i.e., capitalism replaces the age-old feudal system.

In the capitalistic mode of production the class antagonism acquires most acute dimensions. The working class movement begins to concretise and reaches its peak. Through a class conflict between the class of capitalists and the class of industrial labourers, the capitalist system is replaced by socialism. This violent change has been termed as revolution by Marx.


Marx said that the class antagonism and subsequently the class conflict in the capitalist system will usher in socialism in place of capitalism through a revolution. Here the question arises what is the basis of this antagonism? Marx’s answer is that the contradiction between the forces and the relations of production is the basis of this antagonism. The bourgeoisie is constantly creating more powerful means of production. But the relations of production

that is, apparently, both the relations of ownership and the distribution of income are not transferred at the same rate. The capitalist mode of production is capable to produce in bulk, but despite this mass production and increase in wealth, majority of the population suffers from poverty and misery. On the other hand, there are a few families who have so much wealth that one could not even count or imagine. These stark and wide disparities create some tiny islands of prosperity in a vast ocean of poverty and misery. The onus of this disparity lies on the inequal, exploitative relations of production which distribute the produce in an inequal manner. This contradiction, according to Marx, will eventually produce a revolutionary crisis. The proletariat, which constitutes and will increasingly

constitute the vast majority of the population, will become a class, that is, a social entity aspiring for the seizure of power and transformation of social relations.


Marx has conceived of alienation as a phenomenon related to the structure of those societies in which the producer is divorced from the means of production and in which

“dead labour” (capital) dominates “living labour” (the worker). Let us take an example of a shoemaker in a factory. A shoemaker manufactures shoes but cannot use them for himself. His creation thus becomes an object which is separate from him. It becomes an entity which is separate from its creator. Class and Class Conflict He makes shoes not because making shoes satisfies merely his urge to work and create. He does so to earn his living. For a worker this ‘objectification’ becomes more so because the process of production in a

factory is decided into several parts and his job may be only a tiny part of the whole. Since he produces only one part of the whole, his work is mechanical and therefore he loses his creativity.

In Marx’s sense alienation is an action through which (or a state in which) a person, a group, an institution, or a society becomes (or remains) alien )

a) to the results or products of its own activity (and to the activity itself), and/or

b) to the nature in which it lives, and/or

c) to other human beings, and in addition and through any or all of (a) to (c) also

d) to itself (to its own historically created human possibilities).

Alienation is always self-alienation, i.e., one’s alienation from oneself

through one’s own activity.


Mere criticism of alienation was not the intention of Marx. His aim was to clear the path for a radical revolution and for accomplishing communism understood as “the re-integration of one’s return to oneself, the supersession of one’s self-alienation”. Mere abolition of private property cannot bring about de-alienation of economic and social life. This situation of the worker, or the producer does not alter by transforming private property into state

property. Some forms of alienation in capitalist production have their roots in the nature of the means of production and the related division of social labour, so that they cannot be eliminated by a mere change in the form of managing production.

Infrastructure According to Marx, the materialistic structure or economic structure is the foundation or base of society. In other words, it is also called the infrastructure. The superstructure of society rests on it. Infrastructure includes

mode of production and hence forces of production and relations of production.

Superstructure All social, political and cultural institutions of societies excepting economic institutions constitute the superstructure of a society.

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