Classic Texts: Karl Marx "Selected Writings" 1857-1867
Last updated 23 Apr 2019
Marx wrote extensively throughout his life. His two best-known works are The Communist Manifesto (co-written with Engels in 1848) and Capital (1867). In the years between he developed his ideas about the nature of capitalism and the class system.
Karl Marx argues that social stratification is created by the economic system and is based on the relationship between people and that system. In his earlier writing he suggested that there had been class struggle throughout history. Different economic systems still saw a clear class divide between the powerful and the powerless. Marx argues that this is particularly apparent in capitalism.
He defines the social classes by their relationship to the means of production. The means of production refers things like factories and mills. The bourgeoisie (ruling class) own the means of production and employ the proletariat (the working class). Marx argues that the bourgeoisie exploits the proletariat. While the proletariat is paid a wage for its work, it is much less than the value that its adds through its work. This gap - between the real value of work and what workers are paid for it - is where the bourgeoisie makes its profit. Marx calls this surplus value. The proletariat are paid as little as the bourgeoisie can get away with - making them wage slaves.
How did the bourgeoisie get to own the means of production? Because they had capital. Tradespeople and businesspeople were able to accumulate money and invest it into industry during the industrial revolution. Once they owned the means of production, they formed the dominant class in capitalism.
A key aspect of Marx's analysis of capitalism was that the proletariat was much bigger than the bourgeoisie. The proletariat was a large and growing class, while the bourgeoisie was a small but wealthy minority. So why did the proletariat put up with being exploited?
Marx identified two main ways in which this happened:
1) State power. Marx argued that the state (the government) worked in the interests of the bourgeoisie and would use its power - including the police and the army - to control and subdue the proletariat and prevent revolution.
2) Ideology. Much of the time, the bourgeoisie did not need to use violence to control the proletariat - it could use ideology. The bourgeoisie carefully created the illusion that inequality was inevitable or fair. Either it was God's will or else it was the result of meritocracy. Either way, the working class are convinced that capitalism is fair or inevitable and that they should be happy with their lot.
Marx argued that capitalism would eventually cause its own downfall. By enriching the minority and impoverishing the majority, eventually there would be a revolution and the proletariat would build a new communist society, without class struggle.
Critics of Marx suggest that capitalism has created great wealth and the working class has benefited from this too, with consumer goods and labour-saving inventions. Also, they would point to the possibility of social mobility: people from working-class backgrounds can reach the top through the hard work and talent (meritocracy).
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