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Karl Marx is one of the most reputed philosophers of the 19th Century. Born in 1818 in a middle class family, Marx studied law in Bonn and Berlin and later plunged deeper into the ideas of Hegel and Feurbach (Wheen, 2007). It is after receiving his doctorate in philosophy in 1841 from the University of Jena that he moved with his family to Paris where he became a radical revolutionary communist and teamed up with Friedrich Engels, another radical philosopher of his time. They collectively authored the pamphlet The Communist Manifesto which was later published in 1848. In this pamphlet, Marx passionately asserted that all human history was dominated by class struggles. Furthermore, he predicted that they would culminate into the fall of capitalism and rise of communism (Wheen, 2007).
Karl Marx later moved to London in 1849 where he broke his political and religious isolation to author Das Kapital, sometimes referred to as the Bible of the working class (Wheen, 2007). In this book, Marx developed very philosophical ideas related to the crises of the working class and the implicit struggles between laborers and owners of industries. The works and ideas of Karl Marx in his book Das Kapital were later edited by Engels after his death in 1833 in London (Wheen, 2007). The ideas of Karl Marx established a school of thought known as Marxism, or what later came to be popularly known as the Marxist doctrine. His writings consummated the main ideological currents of 19th century. These included the classical English political economy, French socialism and the French revolutionary doctrines of the time.
Marx, throughout his writing, had envisaged a social revolution that would see the fall of capitalism and the rise of socialism as a dominant ideology. These predictions later became evident after the death of Karl Marx in what was considered to be a process of socialization of labor. Wheen (2007) contends that this transformation would be possible to accomplish by the proletariat in sustained struggles with the bourgeoisie. This led to the development of ideas evident in Marxism and the conflict theory that form the bedrock of Marxs works.
Karl Marxs Conflict Theory
Conflict theory is a Marxist perspective and conceptualization of the way in which society is structured. This perspective depicts society as characteristically dominated by conflicts (Collins & Sanderson, 2008). Conflict is the determinant of how resources are allocated and who benefits the most from such allocations. Power is also acquired through conflict, and once such power is acquired, it is used to dominate the less-powerful and to benefit a few people. Collins and Sanderson (2008) cited that the basic form of interaction in the human society is not consensus but competition, which culminates into persistent conflicts. Each party or individual competes against perceived rivals with the goal of gaining advantage and dominating the other.
The theory presented by Karl Marx underscores the fact that conflict, and not consensus, dominates designed mechanisms through different classes in the stratified society, interacts and relates to each other (Collins & Sanderson, 2008). The rich and the powerful use conflict to threaten their poor subjects and to maintain the status-quo. The poor on the other hand, organize and use conflicts to push for a revolution that will overthrow the powerful that are enjoying the privileges of capitalist structures. These tensions are thus sustained by the need of each group to have its interests dominate the structures and operations of the society.
Karl Marx contends that the society is stratified into two main social groups. These are the proletariat and the bourgeoisies. The conflict between these two large social groups results in what Marx considered as revolutionary change. The probable source of conflict between the proletariat and the bourgeoisies are the desire of the proletariat to have ownership of means of production, such as factories, power, land and other valuable resources (Collins & Sanderson, 2008). The bourgeoisies, on the other hand, are not willing to relinquish these resources and give up their privileged positions of power and overwhelming riches and investments.
Karl Marx on Class and Class Conflict
According to Karl Marx, society is stratified into classes. The classes comprise the bourgeoisies, land-owners and the proletariat. The propertied-upper-class is the minority, while the proletariats are the majority. Wood (2004) notes Marxs dissection of the dominant features of each of these classes in most of his works. For example, the bourgeoisies own the means of production. This is due to the huge investments they have made into factories and machines in the industries. The land owners have rent as their primary source of income. The proletariats are owners of cheap labor which they offer in exchange for wages that they use for their basic subsistence (Collins & Sanderson, 2008).
Investment gives the bourgeoisies a lot of profit. Marx conceptualized the structure of the society in relation to the two major classes. He is focused on the inherent struggles between the proletariat and bourgeoisies which is the engine that pushes the occurrence of social change through revolutionary movements. In the understanding of Marxists, class is defined by the level of wealth and power that one possesses (Wood, 2004). This power is used to sideline other classes from property and positions of power. Bourgeoisies use their power to serve their personal interests and amass more wealth at the expense of the proletariat. These three different classes, in the understanding of Karl Marx, have different interests which pit them against each other (Wood, 2004). For example, the bourgeoisie are interested in safeguarding their investment in the industries, maximizing profits and minimizing costs. This makes them engage the proletariats as laborers in the farms to achieve this objective at relatively minimal wages.
The proletariats on the other hand, organize and mobilize themselves to collectively push for better wages, conditions of work and strive to overcome the repressive and exploitative forces of their masters in the industries and factories. Thus, they struggle to join hands and, through revolutionary movements, overthrow the bourgeoisies and control the industries and factories (Wood, 2004). These conflicting interests are what pit the social classes against each other. Conflicts, and not consensus, therefore, characterize the society as noted by Marx who had envisaged such a society founded on constant conflicts.
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The struggle between the classes is likely to widen with time as the conditions of the laborers deteriorate further. This is likely leads to disintegration of the social structure. Collins and Sanderson (2008) asserted that conflicts between proletariats and bourgeoisies would translate into an industrial revolution. This would mark the triumph of the proletariats over the bourgeoisies, leading to increased access to capital and means of production by proletariats. This, according to Marxists, would mark the end of capitalism and the onset of socialism characterized by public ownership of the means of production.
The fall of capitalism and bourgeoisies will, therefore, create a classless society as political power withers away due to industrial revolution led by the proletariat (Wood, 2004). Thus, according to Marxists, class and class conflict are the forces behind societal transformation and not any other evolutionary processes. Radical revolutionary movements are likely to create a new social order in the society in which capitalism gives way to socialism as witnessed by the industrial revolutions that altered the social order in Russia in the 19th century.
Karl Marx on Alienation
The philosophical ideas of Karl Marx on alienation were relevant in his radical reformation periods that saw the fall of capitalism (Otteson, 2011). Although these ideas were mainly considered to be philosophical in the 19th century, alienation, as was espoused by Marx, since then has become a real social phenomenon in the 21st century discourses that are propagated by contemporary social science scholars. The most outstanding aspect that Marx wrote about was economic alienation or alienated labor. According to the writings of Karl Marx, one of the front forces behind conflict between bourgeoisies and proletariat is the fact laborers felt separated from the products of their own labor (Me%u0301sza%u0301ros, 2006).
Marx asserted that in a capitalist society, workers were forced to remain on the job and work extra hard in order to earn and sustain themselves (Me%u0301sza%u0301ros, 2006). He was against alienation which is caused by strong forces of capitalism and predicted the rise of communism in which laborers will no longer work to live but live to work. With the fall of capitalism and alienation, wage earning slaves will be free men who will work and enjoy the value of their labor. In a capitalist society dominated by bourgeoisies, the production capacity of an employee is 100%. However, the employee does not benefit directly from these products. He only earns 10% of the proceeds of his work, which he only uses for daily subsistence. In communism, one would directly benefit from 90% of the proceeds of his labor and only lose 10% which will be spent in other production processes.
Marx contended that in a capitalist society, workers are alienated even from the products that they produce (Me%u0301sza%u0301ros, 2006). A laborer working in an industry that manufactures oil becomes so much alienated from the product that he or she produces to an extent that even in his or her own household he cannot afford the oil, yet he needs it and contributes significantly to its production. The ideas of Karl Marx on alienation were very accurate considering that many labor union movements advocated for the welfare of workers in the modern society (Otteson, 2011). There are employees who work in a milk processing plant, when ironically back at home they do not take the milk, not because they do not need it but because they cannot afford the milk.
Alienation as presented by Karl Marx in his conflict theory is an explanation of a situation in which man is separated from valued resources, opportunities, processes and decisions in which his input ought to be reflected (Me%u0301sza%u0301ros, 2006). The laborers at the time of Marxs life did not have opportunity to say a word on the amount of wages they earned as compensation for their work. Yet, their role in the industrial production processes was very significant. The masters determined the wages, number of hours worked, when to grant leaves for recuperation and so on. In fact, Marx was very concerned with how the surplus value of products processed in the industries manned by workers benefited the workers themselves.
Marx asserted that in a capitalist society, the surplus value only makes the rich richer as the workers become more impoverished. So worked up were the laborers that they were even alienated from their own families and private lives. They did not have time for recreation, family sessions or other community forums. Marx sadly puts it in his writings of Das Kapital that leave or absence to workers in a capitalist system was hard to come by (Me%u0301sza%u0301ros, 2006). But when such leaves were finally granted, they were only meant to help the workers recuperate and get extra strength not to benefit themselves but their masters who would then register a rise in surplus value in the industrial production.
Alienation, according to the writings of Karl Marx, can be seen to occur in four different ways. Me%u0301sza%u0301ros (2006) contends that workers are alienated against the products that they produce; they do not benefit from them much, the production process especially through specialized division of labor, from the community and from himself. In a capitalist industrialized society, specialized division of labor is used to promote alienation under the disguise of enhancing efficiency and effectiveness in production. Marx argues that an employee, concerned purely with the repair of broken down machines in industry producing oil, may not have enough experience with other production processes in the industry. The owners of the industry alienate them from this knowledge out of fear that such knowledge might empower workers to compete against the factory owners.
Karl Marx on Consciousness
Consciousness as defined by philosophers refers to how people or a person defines and understands himself (Wood, 2004). The concept of consciousness as presented in the writings of Karl Marx was basically bent towards understanding and identification with ones class. It is this consciousness that would push the workers (proletariats) to join other proletariats and put forward a united battle against one common social group, the bourgeoisies. Wood (2004) asserts that consciousness would enable workers gain awareness that they all had shared experiences with other laborers, the bitter experience of alienation, exploitation and oppression by capitalist bourgeoisies (Wood, 2004). This consciousness would push the workers to rise against the bourgeoisies and launch protest and revolutionary movements that would lead to the fall of capitalism and the onset of communists ideologies. Marx used the term class consciousness to illustrate this level of awareness on the part of the workers. There are scholars of Marxism who have argued that the concept of consciousness was used by Karl Marx to depict class as a very subjective dimension in a capitalist society.
The concept of consciousnerss forms the skeleton of Marx conflict theory. The proletariat will only rise to confront the bourgeoisies after realization that all workers had common problems, all originating from the bourgeoisies. Such awareness by itself is inspiring enough to stir up revolution and protests against the bourgeoisies (Wood, 2004). Marx argued that it was false class consciousness that continued to sustain the forces and the influence of capitalist ideologies.
The proletariat had misrepresented their identity, position in society and resigned to fate, preferring to remain in subordinate positions as the bourgeoisies took advantage of this and used their positions to exploit and dominate the economy (Wood, 2004). Members of subordinate classes, such as workers and peasants continued to suffer in the hands of the dominant bourgeoisies as a result of false-class-consciousness. The upper class, on the other hand, has their consciousness right as they believe they should remain dominant owners of the means of production.
Karl Marxs works have influenced and continue to influence sociological academia and studies in the field of economics. Although some of his ideas, like conflict theory have been criticized by scholars since then in the contemporary sociological theory, conflict perspective remain to be a very popular sociological perspective, while Marx remains in academic records as one of the great scholars that contributed to the growth of sociology and its relevance in understanding human interactions and relationships in the society. Contemporary scholars, including critics of Marxism, continue to draw on his works to develop new concepts and ideas aimed at offering more accurate explanations of various phenomena in the society.
Collins, R., & Sanderson, S. K. (2008). Conflict sociology: A sociological classic updated. Boulder: Paradigm Publishers.
Meszaros, I. (2006). Marx’s theory of alienation. Delhi: Aakar Books.
Otteson, J. R. (2011). The inhuman alienation of capitalism. Society, 49(2), 139-143.
Wheen, F. (2007). Marx’s das kapital: A biography. New York, N.Y: Atlantic Monthly Press.
Wood, A. W. (2004). Karl Marx. New York: Routledge.