Karl Marx Contribution To Sociology Essay Example

Contribution of Max Weber and Karl Marx towards Sociology!

Max Weber:

Max Weber was born in 1864 in Germany. In the beginning, he studied law. Later, he shifted to the study of social sciences. His Ph. D. thesis was on the “History of Commercial Societies in the Middle Ages ‘. In 1896, he became professor of economics. In addition to his scholarly concerns, Weber also pursued his political interests.

It appeared that he will be a major figure in German intellectual life. In 1897, Weber had a clash with his father and after a month his father died. Shortly thereafter, Weber suffered a complete breakdown and did not recover for more than five years. He travelled a great deal especially to Switzerland and Italy. Then almost unexpectedly in 1903, his intellectual forces were gradually restored.

He became the editor of a leading German Social Science Journal. He again resumed a full writing career but returned to teaching only in the last few years of his life. In the last three years of his life i.e. 1918 to 1920, he again took active part in politics and wrote a number of newspaper articles and papers on politics of the hour. Weber died in June 1920.

Social Action:

In the field of sociology, Weber’s point of departure is the distinction between four types of actions, which are as follows:

Zweck rational action

Wert rational action

Affective action

Traditional action

A brief description of these four types of actions is as follows:

Zweck rational action:

This is a rational action which is performed in relation to a goal. It corresponds to Pareto’s logical action. For example, action of the engineer, who is building a bridge or army general who wants to win a war? In such actions an actor clearly knows his goals and selects specific means to attain these goals. However, Weber defines rationality in terms of knowledge of the actor.

Wert rational action:

This type of action is also rational action but in relation to values, for example, a brave captain goes down with his sinking ship. His action is rational not because it seeks to attain a definite and external goal; but because to abandon the sinking ship would be regarded as dis-honourable.

Affective action:

This type of action is emotional and is dictated primarily by the state of mind of the actor, for example, the slap which the mother gives her child because of his bad behaviour. In this case, the action is not oriented to a goal or a system of value; rather it is determined by an emotional reaction of the actor in a given set of circumstances.

Traditional action:

This type of action is dictated by beliefs and customs which become habitual. In this case, the individual performs the action according to the customs or traditions which have become a part of his personality because of conditioning.

According to Weber, the subject matter of sociology is social action, n sociology; an effort has to be made to understand the meanings which an individual attaches to his conduct.

The classification of action into various types by Weber is governed to a certain extent by interpretation of the contemporary period of history. According to him, the major characteristic of the modern world is rationalization, which is expressed in the sphere of Zweck rational actions.

Concept of ideal types:

The main concern of Weber was to define generalized categories for the analysis of social phenomena. He developed the concept of ideal types for such an analysis. In the words of Shils and Finch, “An ideal type is formed by the one-sided accentuation of one or more points of view and by the synthesis of a great many diffuse, discrete,’ more or less present and occasionally absent concrete individual phenomena, which are arranged according to those one-sidedly emphasized viewpoints into a unified analytical construct”. Thus an ideal type is a methodological tool that serves the investigator as a measuring rod to ascertain similarities as’ well as deviations in concrete cases.

According to Weber, there are two types of meaning of an action—(a) actually existing meaning to a concrete individual action and (b) a theoretically conceived pure type of subjective meaning. The second type of meaning is the principle which is known as the ideal type. The ideal type is not merely an abstraction but a specific type of abstraction.

The ideal type presents a pattern which may not exist in reality, but is constructed by the sociologist for comprehending the meaning of social actions. The ideal type is the methodological tool which enables the sociologist to analyze and comprehend the social actions.

This ideal type does not describe concrete course of action, but under normal conditions an ideal course of action. It does not describe an individual course of action but a typical one. Thus ideal type is a generalized concept and by using it, the sociologist can classify a large number of cases in a few categories. For example, the typology of social action and authority presented by Weber is an ideal type which concentrates attention on extreme or polar types.

Weber defines ideal types negatively i.e. by describing what it is not. According to him (a) it is not a hypothesis in the sense that it is a proposition about concrete reality, which is verifiable, (b) It is not a description of reality or existing process, (c) It is not average in the sense what we say that the average man weighs 70 kgs. (d) It is not a formulation of concrete traits common to a class of concrete things.

According to Weber, it is necessary for the sociologist to construct pure ideal type of actions in order to give precise meaning to them. He points out that the case is similar to a physical reaction which is carried forward on the assumption of an absolute vacuum. In case of sociology also, the theoretical analysis is possible only in terms of such pure ideal types.

According to him, the ideal type serves its methodological function in a better way if it is more and more abstract and unrealistic. Ideal type is mentally constructed. It is constructed by exaggeration or accentuation of one or more elements or points of view observable in reality. The type thus constructed may be called ideal because it exists only as an ideal.

It is a tool or a method of analysis for the comprehension of concrete events or situations. Weber made extensive use of ideal type method in the sociological analysis. The formulation of ideal types is based on an extensive study of a large number of social phenomena and he seems to select the traits to be included in an ideal type, rather intuitively.

Types of authority:

According to Weber, authority relations refer to those relations of men whereby some men feel that they have a legitimate right to expect willing obedience from other people to their command. Weber has constructed the typology of authority as an ideal type.

He distinguished three main types of authority which are as follows:

(a) Rational-Legal Authority:

This type of authority is based -on rational grounds and justified by laws, rules and regulations. It is generally found in modern society. The hierarchical relationships are governed by this type of authority. The rational legitimacy rests on a belief in the legality of rules and the right of those having legal authority to issue commandos.

(b) Traditional:

This type of authority is based on domination of past customs or traditions. It is generally found in pre-modern societies. The traditional authority is based on belief in the sacred quality of the traditions and legitimacy o thoughts.

This type of authority is exercised by persons who have either inherited it or have been granted this authority by a hip he authority. In the present age, in those countries, which still have monarchy, traditional domination persists symbolically but ne actually. The traditional legitimacy rests on an established belief in the sanctity of past traditions and the legitimacy of the statue of those exercising authority under them.

(c) Charismatic authority:

This type of authority is base on an extraordinary devotion to the sacred quality or exemplar character of a person and of the order created by him. For example, Mahatama Gandhi exercised authority which cans t called Charismatic.

This type of authority is neither based on the rationality of rules and regulations nor on long standing tradition but on the devotion of men for certain other persons who a able to influence them on the basis of their character, virtue honesty.


Max Weber was the first to give an elaborate account of t development of bureaucracy as well as its causes and consequences.

He attributed the following characteristics bureaucracy:

1. The principle of fixed and official jurisdictional are which are generally ordered by rules. The regular activities associated with each status are distributed in fixed way official duties. The structure of authority is clearly laid down and strictly delimited by rules.

2. The principle of office hierarchy and levels of graded authority with a firmly ordered system of super-ordination and subordination in which there is a supervision of the lower offices by the higher ones.

3. A division of labour based on specialized functions and responsibilities.

4. A system of written documents (the files) defining the procedure as well as the rights and duties of people in all positions.

5. Office management based on thorough and expert training.

6. Selection for employment and promotion based on technical competence, specialized knowledge or skill.

7. Office—holding as a ‘vocation’. Official work is no longer a secondary activity but something that demands the full working capacity of the official.

8. Provision for pecuniary compensation as a fixed salary.

9. Appointment of employees by higher officials, rather than by election.

10. The system of tenure for life. Normally the position of the bureaucrat is held for life as specified by contract.

11. A clear distinction between the sphere of office and that of the private affairs of the individual. The bureaucratic official is not an owner of the enterprise and therefore, not entitled to the use of official facilities for personal needs except as defined by strict rules.

12. The practice of performing specialized administrative functions .according to purely objective considerations and the official discharge of business according to calculable rules and ‘without regard for persons’.

According to Weber, the most important factors contributing to the development of modern bureaucracy are as follows:

(a) The development of money economy which guaranteed a constant ^come for maintaining bureaucracy through a stable system of taxation; it also encouraged a pecuniary compensation for the officials and a purely economic conception of the office as a source of the official’s private income.

(b) The quantitative development of administrative tasks, especially in the field of politics where “the great state and mass party are the classic soil for bureaucratization”.

(c) Qualitative changes of administrative tasks. Among purely political factors the demand for order and production and for the so called welfare state, and among essentially technical factors, the development of modern means of communication especially the railroads and the mass media, operate in the direction of bureaucratization.

(d) The purely technical superiority of bureaucracy over any other form of organization.

(e) The complicated and specialized nature of modern culture that demands “the personally detached and strictly objective expert, in lieu of the master of older social structures, who was moved by personal sympathy and favour, by grace and gratitude”.

(f) The rational interpretation of law on the basis of strictly formal conception of a ‘equality before the law’ and the demand for legal guarantees against arbitrariness.

(g) The concentration of the material means of management in the hands of the master as exemplified in the development of big capitalist enterprises and the giant public organizations such as the modern state or army.

(h) The leveling of economic and social differences and the corresponding rise of modern mass representative democracy in contrast to the old democratic self government of small homogenous communities.

Although Weber emphasizes the virtues of bureaucracy and its unquestionable advancement in modern society, he also conceded the vices of bureaucracy viz., the inevitable de-personalization of human relationship in government and industry.

He refers to the formalism and the rules bound character of bureaucratic organization and increasing concentration of the materials of management. According to Weber, bureaucracy is inevitable, irrepressible and inescapable.

Sociology of Religion:

Weber’s essay ‘Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism’ is considered as the classical study in the field of sociology of religion. In this work, Weber sought to demonstrate that economic factors do not represent a constant and independent variable to which all others stand in dependence.

In the opinion of Weber, the treatment of economic factor as a determining factor was the major weakness of Marx and the ultimate failure of his theoretical formulation. Weber emphasized that economic factors are, as Abraham puts it, “one variable, a very important one, in close relationship with others, affected by them as in fact it in turn can affect them”.

Weber analyzed the relationship between the religious values and economic interests. He noticed that Protestants, particularly of the Calvinist sect, were the chief captains of industry and possessed more wealth and economic means than other religious groups, notably Catholics.

Therefore, he wanted to ascertain whether there is an essential harmony between the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. He also sought to find out whether and to what extent a cluster of values in the religions of India, China and Middle East facilitated or hindered the development of capitalism.

In order to overcome the methodological problem of defining capitalism and Protestant ethic, Weber made use of the concept of ideal type. Protestant ethic does not refer to any particular theological doctrine but a set of values and belief systems that make up a religious ideal.

Capitalism, in its ideal type, is thought of by Weber to be chat complex activity designed specifically to maximize profit through the careful and intentional exercise of rational organization and management of production.

Weber identified the following values embedded in Protestantism which are in harmony with the spirit of capitalism:

1. The shift from ritualistic and other:

Worldly orientation to down-to-earth pragmatism: The finite mind of man cannot comprehend the infinite mind of God who created the world for His own glory. Therefore, there is no point in indulging in mysticism; rather man should seek to understand the natural order. This is essentially anti-ritualistic attitudes that favour the development of science and rational investigation.

2. Changed attitude toward work:

Protestant ethic proclaims work as virtue, something not only good and desirable but contributing to the glory of God as well.

3. The concept of calling:

This idea emerged from the Calvinist doctrine of predestination according to which every soul is predestined at birth for heaven or hell and that nothing an individual does in his life can change his ultimate fate. But there are signs by which God indicates to every individual whether he is among the elect, success in life being the most important one.

Since every man is anxious to know if he is marked for salvation or damnation, he should select a calling, a vocation, work hard at it, and be successful. The new doctrine encourages people to seek gainful enterprises, accumulate wealth and prove their destiny.

4. The new attitude toward the collection of interest on loans:

The theological doctrine of Catholicism proscribed the collection of interest on loans. However, according to Calvinism, there is no restriction on the collection of interest on loans. This Calvinistic ethic led to a spurt of economic activity: establishment of lending houses, new investments and new floating capital.

5. Structures on alcoholism:

Protestant ethic prohibits the consumption of alcoholic beverages; there is no comparable theological doctrine in Catholicism.

6. Encouragement of literacy and learning:

Protestant ethic emphasized that every man should read his own Bible rather than depend on priestly interpretations. This led to the development of mass education and of specialized skills.

7. Rejection of holidays:

The Catholic Calendar is full of holy days and almost every holy day is a holiday. However, according to Protestant ethic, work contributes to the glory of God and thus there is no need for celebrations on holy days.

8. Protestant Asceticism:

Protestant ethic emphasizes the notion that earthly things and flesh belong to the order of sin and death and therefore, one should abstain from the pleasures of the world. Thus, on the one hand, Protestant ethic encourages people to accumulate wealth and on the other hand, it forbids the use of wealth for enjoyment. The wealth should be used for producing more and more, undoubtedly a condition par excellence for the development of capitalism.

After establishing the essential harmony between Protestant ethic and the spirit of Capitalism, Weber turned to other religions to see if there is a discernible cluster of values in them comparable to Protestant ethic that is favourable to the rise of capitalism.

He found a variety of non-religious social and economic conditions conducive to the development of capitalism in China and India but the ethical system of Confucianism and the doctrine of Karma in Hinduism were not particularly favourable.

Moreover, the combination of religious values that constituted the Protestant ethic was unique: an unusual blend of two apparently inconsistent notions, namely, limitless accumulation of wealth and abstention from enjoyment.

It would be wrong to assume that Weber replaced a one-sided economic determinism with one-sided ideological determinism. He considered a variety of factors—social, economic and political— but the confluence of values inherent in religion played a central role in the matrix of inter-relationships.

Karl Marx:

Karl Marx lived from 1818 to 1883. He initially studied law and later he turned to the study of philosophy. In 1841, at the age of 23, he received the doctorate degree. After completing his studies, he began writing for a radical left-wing paper in Cologne and became its editor in 1842. After the closure of the paper, Marx travelled to Paris.

During his stay in Paris, he met Friedrich Engels and the friendship between the two was immediate and eternal. Both of them wrote a number of classic works together. The major works of Karl Marx include. The Communist Manifesto, Contributions to a Critique of Political Economy, the Class Struggle in France, and the classic three volumes work. Das Kapital.

Hegel and Marx:

Georg F.W. Hegel was a German philosopher who dominated the intellectual climate of his day. While Marx was living in Berlin he became young Hegelian by virtue of Hegel’s thought. The basic idea of Hegel’s philosophy is that the essence of reality is reason, but the spirit of reason manifests itself only gradually, revealing more and more facets of itself during the course of time.

The most important idea, which Marx adopted from Hegel, was that of ‘dialectics’. According to Hegel, each statement of truth or thesis has its opposite statement or antithesis which may be reconciled on a higher level of synthesis. But this is not the end for the dialectical process; the chain continues as the synthesis becomes a new thesis with its antithesis and so on.

The adoption of dialectical method is the only similarity between Marx and Hegel. Hegel perceived truth in ideas, but for Marx, ideas are not the realm of truth but rather matter is. Accordingly, Hegel’s conception could be called ‘dialectical idealism” whereas the conception of Marx can be considered as “dialectical materialism”.

Marx like Hegel was also interested in the analysis of the truth of history but Hegel advocated an idealistic approach to history whereas Marx emphasized the materialistic approach. Therefore, it is generally remarked that Marx turned Hegel upside down.

The shift from Hegelian idealism to historical materialism led Marx to believe that the motivating factor in human existence was not ideas about religion and society but a materialistic realism having to do with survival. This survival, the necessity to produce the means of subsistence was fundamental to human life and human action in community and society. In the words of Marx, “the first historical act is the production of material life itself. This is indeed a historical act, a fundamental condition of all history”.

According to Marx, “Men begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence…… In producing their means of subsistence men indirectly produced their actual material life”. This stage occurs within the framework of a progressive historical evolution. Just as Comte distinguished three phases of human evolution, on the basis of ways of thinking, Marx identified four stages of human history on the basis of modes of production: primitive communism, ancient slave production, feudalism and capitalism.

Primitive communism signifies communal ownership; ancient mode of production was characterized by slavery; the feudal mode of production by serfdom and the capitalist system by the bourgeois exploitation and wage earners. Each of these stages, except primitive communism constituted a distinct mode of man’s’ exploitation by man and his struggle for freedom.

Dialectical materialism:

As explained above, Marx turned from Hegelian idealism to materialism. Marx made good use of the dialectical method in what came to be called ‘dialectical materialism’ or ‘historical materialism’. Hegel was an idealist who asserted the primacy of mind whereas Marx was a materialist who asserted the primacy of the matter. According to Marx, matter is not a product of mind; on the contrary, mind is simply the most advanced product of matter.

Larson has outlined the basic postulates of Marxian dialectical method as follows:

(i) All the, phenomena of nature are part of an integrated whole

(ii) Nature is in a continuous state of movement and change;

(iii) The developmental process is a product of quantitative advances which culminate in abrupt qualitative changes; and

(iv) Contradictions are inherent in all realms of nature— particularly human society.

This methodology perceived history as a series of stages based on a particular mode of production and characterized by a particular type of economic organization. Because of the inherent contradictions each stage contained the seeds of its own destruction.

In the words of Stalin, “the dialectical method, holds that the process of development should be understood not as a movement in a circle, not a simple repetition of what has already occurred, but as an onward and upward movement, as transition from an old qualitative state to a new qualitative state, from the lower to the higher”.

Marx believed that society may be functioning quite efficiently but it is destined to face revolution until the final breakdown of all class divisions. According to himself, “even when a society exemplifies the best that mankind can establish n terms of harmony and cooperation, in time the established order becomes an obstacle to progress, and a new order antithesis) begins to arise. A struggle ensues between the class representing the old order and the class representing the new order.

The emerging class is eventually victorious creating a new order of production that is synthesis of the old and the new. This new order, however, contains the seeds of its eventual destruction and the dialectical process continues”. The inevitability of the continuing struggle is related to the emergence of the division of labour within society, for it is this phenomenon of labour differentiation which forms antagonistic classes that, in turn, become the center of competition and struggle against nature as well as against other elements within society.

The use of the dialectic in the analysis of society and history became a major characteristic of Marxism. According to Lenin, materialism in general recognizes objectively real being (matter) is independent of consciousness, sensation experience……………. Consciousness is only the reflection of being, at best and approximately true (adequate, ideal) reflection of it”.

A further clarification is provided by Stalin on materialism in the following words, “Marx’s philosophical materialism holds the world is by its very nature material, that the multi-fold phenomena of the world constitute different forms of matter in motion, that interconnection and interdependence of phenomena, as established by the dialectical method, are a law of the development of moving matter and that the world develops in accordance with the laws of movement in matter and stands in no need of a universal spirit”.

Economic infrastructure and socio-economic superstructure:

Although Marx did not constantly argue for a crude economic determinism, he left no doubt that he considered the economy to be the foundation of whole socio-cultural system. Throughout their study Marx and Engels emphasized the primacy of economic factor in human relationship and the centrality of the economic dimension in the political structures. The economic system of production and distribution, or the means and relations of production in the Marxian sense, constitute the basic structure of society, on which are built all other social institutions, particularly the state and the legal system.

According to Engels, “the production of immediate material means of subsistence, and consequently, the degree of economic development attained by a given people or during a given epoch, forms the foundation upon which the state institutions, the legal conceptions, the ideas on art, and even on religion, of the people concerned have been evolved”.

Marx’s economic interpretation of history and social change is amply clear from the following quotation from Marx, “in the social production which men carry on, they enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will; these relations of production correspond to a definite stage of development of their material powers of production. The sum total of these relations of production’ constitutes the economic structure of society—the real foundation on which rise legal and political superstructures and which correspond definite forms of social consciousness.

The mode of production in material life determines the general character of the social, political and spiritual processes of life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence but, on the contrary, their social existence determines their consciousness”. According to Marx, human thought, human awareness and human consciousness were not self originating but were derivatives of the economic principles.

And it is in the arena of political economy that governments and religions must be controlled and human consciousness brought under dominance; particularly when it comes to the governance of the material world, men must realize that the social environment is dependent upon the economics of the situation; and the classes; if they are to cease their competitiveness and potential destruction of society, must be abolished by the removal of structures which nurture class division.

As Doyle Johnson reminds us, “Marx may have overstated his case to establish. His point against competing viewpoints, but Marx’s economic interpretation of history provides a note of hard realism that is sometimes lacking in more idealistic theories of society”.

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Karl Marx: A Brief Introduction

By Frank W. Elwell


Karl Marx (1818-1883) is a difficult theorist to write about. A good deal of the problem is that he has become a major figure in history. As such, he has inspired social movements and individual revolutionaries--some of whom have been faithful to his work, while many more have misused his name and writings. In the not too distant past, the professor teaching Marx had to deal with the cold war and anti-Communist attitudes that students would bring to class. Not only would these students have many misconceptions of Marx's thought and theory--equating it with the Communist Parties of the old Soviet Union and other totalitarian societies-- many would be actively hostile to learning anything about it. Since the end of the cold war, students are usually not active anti-Communists but they still tend to equate Marx with Communism, thus assuming that his thought has been thoroughly rejected and relegated to the dustbin of history. In this essay I do not want to deal with the issue of historical Communism. Marx died well before the revolution in Russia. While he inspired many of the revolutionaries, he bears little of the responsibility for the totalitarian regime that emerged (to explain the Soviet government, look to the Czarist regimes). Marx is not Stalin.


A related problem with writing about Marx is the multiple roles he played during his lifetime. Marx was a socialist prophet, a social theorist, and a political organizer. "The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point however is to change it” (Marx 1845/1999). As a prophet he forecast the eventual revolution of the working class, the destruction of capitalism, and the establishment of a stateless, socialist society. Many of his followers admire him deeply, considering his thought an exemplary expression of humanism and compassion for his fellow human beings. Some have characterized him as the "last of the old testament prophets." In his role as a prophet, he expressed a deep conviction that humankind would someday create a paradise on earth, one in which we would live in brotherhood, sharing our talents and our wealth. Not only did he have a belief in the possibility of such a utopia, he considered it inevitable. His belief, of course, bears striking similarities to the Christian belief in the establishment of an earthly paradise (though absent the Second Coming). As a political organizer (and propagandist) Marx wrote to inspire men and women to immediate action rather than thought. While he wove his prediction and calls to action into his analyses of capitalist society, the revolution and its socialist aftermath are clearly the most speculative parts of his theoretical structure--prophesized perhaps more in hope and faith than in rigorous analysis. Rejecting this vision of an inevitable and workable socialist society, there is still much of value and use in Marx's analysis of capitalism.


But here we will focus almost exclusively on Marx as a social theorist. As a theorist, his writings have had an enormous impact on all of the social sciences. His most significant contribution is in establishing a conflict model of social systems. Rather than conceiving of society as being based on consensus, Marx's theory posits the domination of a powerful class over a subordinate class. However, this domination is never long uncontested. It is the fundamental antagonism of the classes which produces class struggle that ultimately transforms sociocultural systems. "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles" (Marx and Engels 1962, 34). The engine of sociocultural change, according to Marx, is class struggle. Social conflict is at the core of the historical process.

A second significant contribution is that Marx locates the origin of social power in the ownership or control of the forces of production (also referred to as the means of production). It was Marx's contention that the production of economic goods--what is produced, how it is produced, and how it is exchanged--has a profound effect on the rest of the society. For Marx, the entire sociocultural system is based on the manner in which men and women relate to one another in their continuous struggle to secure needed resources from nature.

A third contribution to the social sciences lies inMarx's analysis of capitalism and its effects on workers, on capitalists themselves, and on entire sociocultural systems. Capitalism as an historical entity was an emerging and rapidly evolving economic system. Marx brilliantly grasped its origin, structure, and workings. He then predicted with an astonishing degree of accuracy its immediate evolutionary path. Each of these contributions goes beyond the narrow confines of formal Marxist theory. One need not accept Marx whole cloth in order to integrate his insights into a coherent world-view. Much of his thought is essential in understanding sociocultural systems and thus human behavior.

Mankind's needs for food, shelter, housing, and energy are central in understanding the sociocultural system. "The first historical act is," Marx writes, "the production of material life itself. This is indeed a historical act, a fundamental condition of all of history (Marx. 1964, 60). Unless men and women successfully fulfill this act there would be no other. All social life is dependent upon fulfilling this quest for a sufficiency of eating and drinking, for habitation and for clothing. This is as true today as it was in prehistory. Do not be fooled, Marx is telling us, we are as dependent upon nature as ever. The quest to meet basic needs was man’s primary goal then and remains central when we attempt to analyze the complexities of modern life.

However, men and women are perpetually dissatisfied animals. Our struggle against nature does not cease when we gratify these primary needs. The production of new needs evolve (secondary needs) when means are found to satisfy our primary needs. In order to satisfy these primary and secondary needs, Marx argued, men and women form societies. The first of these societies, communal in nature, were based on a very limited division of labor. These classless societies in which men hunted and women and children gathered vegetables, tubers, and grains were egalitarian in nature. With the domestication of plants and animals, the division of labor begins to emerge in human societies. The division of labor, or increasing specialization of roles and crafts, eventually gives people differential access to resources, skills, and interests. This division eventually leads to the formation of antagonistic classes, the prime actors in human history. From this point on, humans engage in antagonistic cooperation in order to meet their primary and secondary needs. "By thus acting on the external world and changing it, he at the same time changes his own nature” (Marx, 1887/1999, 174).

All social institutions are dependent upon the economic base, and a thorough analysis of sociocultural systems will always reveal this underlying economic arrangement. The way a society is organized to meet material needs will profoundly affect all other social structures, including government, family, education, and religious institutions. "Legal relations as well as the form of the state are to be grasped neither from themselves nor from the so-called development of the human mind, but have their roots in the material conditions of life... The anatomy of civil society is to be sought in political economy (Marx & Engels 1962, 362). (The "so-called general development of the human mind" is a reference to August Comte's evolutionary theory which centered upon the evolution of ideas.)

The means of production is the most powerful factor influencing the rest of the social system. Like all the great macro social theorists, Marx regarded society as a structurally integrated system. Consequently, any aspect of that whole, whether it be legal codes, systems of education, art, or religion, could not be understood by itself. Rather, he believed that we must examine the parts in relation to one another, and in relation to the whole. .


For a more extensive discussion of Marx’s theories refer to Macro Social Theory by Frank W. Elwell.  Also see Sociocultural Systems: Principles of Structure and Change to learn how his insights contribute to a more complete understanding of modern societies.


Elwell, F. (2009), Macrosociology: The Study of Sociocultural Systems. Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press.

Elwell, F. (2013), Sociocultural Systems: Principles of Structure and Change. Alberta: Athabasca University Press.

Engels, F. 1847. The Principles of Communism, (P. Sweezy, Trans.),  http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1847/11/prin-com.htm

Engels, F. 1883. “Eulogy for Marx.” Retrieved March 22, 2008, from 1883: The Death of Karl Marx:http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1883/death/dersoz1.htm

Marx, K. 1847/1999. The Poverty of Philosophy. Retrieved March 19, 2008, from Marx/Engels Archiveshttp://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1847/poverty-philosophy/index.htm

Marx, K. and Engels, F. 1848. The Communist Manifesto. (F. Engels, Trans. and Ed.) Public Domain Books, Kindle Edition, (2005).

Marx, K. 1867/1887. Das Kapital Volume I (Capital). (S. Moore and E. Aveling, Trans.) Public Domain Books, Kindle Edition (2008-11-19).

Marx, K. 1894/1991. Capital: Volume III. (D. Fernbach, Trans.) New York: Penguin Books.

Marx, K., and Engels, F. 1962. Selected Works, 2 Vols. Moscow: Foreign Language Publishing House.

Marx, K. 1964. Selected Writings in Sociology and Social Philosophy. (T. Bottomore, Trans. and Ed.) London: McGraw-Hill.

Marx, K. 1964b. Early Writings. (T. B. Bottomore, Trans. and Ed.) New York: McGraw-Hill.

 Referencing this Site:

Should you wish to quote from this material the format should be as follows: 

Elwell, Frank, 2013, "Karl Marx: a brief introduction," Retrieved August 28, 2013 [use actual date], 

©2005 Frank Elwell, Send comments to felwell at rsu.edu



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