Classical Marxism lecture for a Theory class in INTL

Classical Marxism

Key Terms:


Economic Determinism

Dialectical Materialism


Commodity Fetishism

Class consciousness

False Consciousness


Lecture Outline:

Introduction: Marx’s biography

Why Marx Matters


Dialectical Materialism

Economic Theory



Class Consciousness

Crises of Capitalism


Human Nature

Marxism as a Religion

Why Marxism matters


  • We are beginning our study of the theories and influence of Karl Marx, who was born in Germany in 1818 and died in England in 1883. 
  • Marx’s time was one of dramatic social change in Europe, including the industrial revolution and political upheavals. 
  • An interesting life
  • He was born into a wine-growing family in Trier, Germany
  • His family home is still there
  • Now it is still mostly visited by tourists from China
  • You can also get wine with a picture of Marx on the label
  • He was an indifferent student
  • His father was concerned that he was a failure, and wrote him a scathing letter in which he complained that his son would lounge around in his dressing gown until late in the day, after a night of hard drinking
  • He has become an icon now
  • But he was a complex figure during his life
  • His collaborator Engels helped to pay his bills, and Marx was always complaining over poverty
  • Yet he still managed to continue to pay to have a maid
  • He also probably had a child with her, while he continued to live with his wife
  • Not the cartoon figure that many people think of, a man with a bushy beard 
  • But his image later became an icon
  • I’ve seen his image on bulletin boards in Cuba, along with Engels
  • His name became a bogeyman during the Cold War
  • What was the reason for this? 
  • Marx played a key role in the political events of his time and beyond, but he was also a political philosopher who wanted to understand the transition to industrialization, and the unintended consequences of capitalism, in historical terms. 
  • Some key questions for us to consider: 
  • What drives history forward, according to Marx? 
  • Where does social change come from? 
  • How does Marx understand “class” and why is class structure so important to his view of history?
  • I’m going to do this very quickly, and to try to leave time to discuss Marxism

Why Marx still matters:

  • Even though many of Marx’s predictions about the future have not come about as he expected, he remains a key theorist for sociology because he was concerned with inequality
  • Began a sociological tradition of looking at this
  • The true founder of the structural school
  • Marx thought about the “two-sidedness of history”, or the chosen actions of individuals on one hand, and the forceful constraint of social structure on the other. 
  • Thus Marx wrote in “The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonapart,” “Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.” The tension between human agency and social structure remains a central concern of sociology. 
  • Has inspired a host of later thinkers to wrestle with the issues that he raised
  • His ideas have been radically adapted, but remain influential


  • Probably, the most influential idea that Marx had was materialism
  • Marx believed that the economy formed the core structure of the society, the base
  • All ideas were shaped by this economic base
  • That is, they reflected the social relationships and structures that defined the economy
  • Ideology is determined by the economy
  • One quote: “Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life”
  • The real forces of history are hidden from view
  • Forms of religion and politics are surface appearances of the deeper forces of production and reproduction (base, structure, superstructure)
  • Base: forces of production
  • Structure: relations of production (division of labor)
  • Superstructure: religion, ideology, ideas, values
  • I want to read a lengthy quote to make this point
  • At Marx’s graveside, his longtime collaborator, Friedrich Engels, explained Marx’s view of history:

“Marx discovered the law of development of human history: the simple fact, hitherto concealed by an overgrowth of ideology, that mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion, etc.; that therefore the production of the immediate material means, and consequently the degree of economic development attained by a given people or during a given epoch, form the foundation upon which the state institutions, the legal conceptions, art, and even the ideas on religion, of the people concerned have been evolved, and in the light of which they must, therefore, be explained, instead of vice versa, as had hitherto been the case.”

  • What does this mean? 
  • Marx has also been called an economic determinist, meaning that the economy is the substructure of society from which all other structures derive. 
  • For Marx, this was critical. 
  • The material conditions of life are primary; in some sense, everything else is so much ideological “fluff” for Marx. 
  • Humans express their true nature (species being) through production.
  • When the worker loses control over production, as in capitalist society, he experiences the most profound alienation possible

Dialectic Materialism

  • Marx thought a great deal about the nature of social change
  • Marx borrows an idea from the German philosopher Hegel (1770-1831), and a group of his followers called the young Hegelians
  • In some of Marx’s writing he takes a satirical tone towards the Young Hegelians, and describes them as men of ideas, not of action
  • Described them as pompous windbags
  • According to the Hegelian dialectic, history progresses through contradictions: when opposing elements clash with each other and result in radical change. 
  • Hegel and his followers had in mind the clash of ideas and ideology. 
  • Hegel and his followers believed that you could change society by changing peoples’ ideas of it
  • We see echoes of this approach today: the idea that change begins with raising peoples’ consciousness, education
  • People argue about how to respond to environmental problems
  • Some people stress awareness
  • Marx would have argued that you would need to change the structures of society
  • Marx had in mind something very different.
  • Marx sees change as resulting from conflict and contradiction, but the conflicts stem not from ideology but from the material base, that is, the economic system. 
  • One can see this most clearly in his writings about capitalism, and especially when he argues that “the bourgeoisie…produces…its own grave-diggers” (from The Communist Manifesto). 
  • What is really important is to know that Marx believed societies changed through upheaval and conflict, and that change was not steady and gradual (as Spencer believed), but episodic and violent. He is often referred to, therefore, as a conflict theorist.
  • Specifically, Marx said change comes from the contradictions inherent to the economic structures of each epoch

Economic Theory:

  • Marx also based his arguments on a particular vision of economics
  • One key thought: the different values that objects have for the workers and for the wealthy
  • This is the labor theory of value
  • In capitalism, human labor is the source of all exchange value
  • Exchange value refers to the rate of exchange one commodity bears compared to another commodity
  • Where does a commodity get its exchange value?
  • Human labor is the source of all exchange value
  • When commodities are valued in money, labor is equated with money
  • The capitalist profits by deriving an exchange value from a commodity that is greater than what he paid the laborer
  • This surplus is called exploitation
  • That is, the capitalist makes money by exploiting the worker. 
  • The worker is paid less than the value of the commodity or product that he makes.
  • If a laborer produces $200 worth of goods in a day, but is paid only $75, there is $125 in surplus labor
  • Marx also argued that in order for capitalism to thrive, the rate of exploitation must always increase and markets must always expand.
  • If he could return now, he would be disappointed by many changes, but he would find vindication in our economies’ focus on growth
  • How can capitalists increase the rate of exploitation and hence profits?
  • Lengthen the workday, remove barriers between work and home (in Marx’s day, piecework was done in the home; in our world, technology means that we are always working through e-mail, etc).
  • Capitalists can also increase exploitation through industrialization, increasing output through reorganizing production and machinery
  • One argument today: moving jobs to developing countries is an example of how capitalists must continually search for ways to maintain or increase the rate of exploitation
  • Reducing labor costs is one way to do that


  • Under capitalism not only must the rate of exploitation increase, but markets must expand
  • Markets are the arenas in which commodities are exchanged
  • Commodification is the “process through which more and more of the human life-world is turned into something that can be bought and sold.”
  • Quote from Marx: “So, instead of creatively producing the world as a species-being, people increasingly buy (and sell) the world in which they live”
  • We directly produce less and less of what we need; we buy more and more of what we need
  • As commodification progresses more and more things are commodities
  • Can you think of something that has been commodified recently (blood, sperm, eggs, body parts)
  • Market expansion, industrialization, commodification are mutually reinforcing and multiplying
  • There is an endless pursuit of capital- capitalists invest capital to get more capital to invest more capital
  • Humans are unique in that we create our own needs, so in capitalism, needs expand as well, which generates an expansion of markets
  • Thus the potential expansion of commodification is endless because we can always generate new needs
  • What might be some examples of new needs (cell phone? I-pad?)
  • Marx also talked about commodity fetishism
  • This is the illusion that our worth is linked to money and things, and that we can define ourselves through commodities
  • This is when you give attributes of a living thing to a product
  • Shoes with the Nike swoosh equate to being cool, young 
  • Can anyone else give me an example of commodity fetishism?
  • In commodity fetishism we fail to recognize the oppressive social relations contained in both the product and our perceived need for it
  • The exploitation is hidden


  • Marx believed that the capitalist system also created a phenomenon called alienation
  • Part of dialectical materialism
  • The division of labor makes society possible, but also creates alienation
  • Why are workers alienated under capitalism?
  • They are alienated from the work process.
  • Production is no longer a true expression of their being.
  • No longer are their products an expression of who they are
  • The product belongs to someone else. It is a commodity
  • They no longer own the means of production or the products of their labor.
  • They are alienated from other people.
  • Workers are alienated from each other; consumers are alienated from producers.
  • People do not know who made the products that they buy
  • The people involved in their creation are invisible to us
  • My anecdote: photocopying at the law firm
  • I had no emotional connection to what I was doing, and the product I created
  • I was just a machine
  • This is what Marx refers to as alienation
  • What makes this idea strange is that he appears to be referring to a psychological state
  • Marx would argue that it is not only a psychological condition
  • Rather it is a real representation of the fundamental relations within the economy under capitalism
  • I have a quote from Marx which I want to read, which makes this point
  • It is from the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844:
  • “The more the worker spends himself, the more powerful the alien objective world becomes which he creates over-against himself, the poorer he himself – his inner world – becomes, the less belongs to him as his own.”
  • We begin to see why Marx is described as a materialist
  • Material production is supposed to be how human nature is expressed, and products should mirror our own nature
  • Under capitalism, production is distorted and the worker is alienated from what they produce, and it does not reflect their true nature
  • Marx also thought about the role of women
  • He says that the “slavery” of women and children in the first form of alienated labor

Class Consciousness:

  • Marx focuses on the division of labor
  • The division of labor allows for economic development because it is a more efficient way of satisfying human needs, generating new needs and satisfying them
  • At the same time, the division of labor gives some people power in relation to others through their ability to appropriate a larger proportion of what is produced
  • A contradiction develops between the forces of production and the relations of production
  • The separation of individuals becomes the inequality of individuals
  • Individuals increasingly experience the division of labor as an external system into which she or he is compelled to enter
  • In the division of labor, individuals were not separated randomly, but into social classes
  • Class consciousness is also essential for Marx’s view of social change. 
  • Class consciousness: the awareness that our deprivation is caused by class exploitation, and the group identity that results from that awareness
  • False consciousness: “The ruling ideas of any age are the ideas of the ruling class.”
  • Ideology is a tool created by the ruling class to maintain the masses in a state of subjection
  • Ideologies serve to justify current inequalities, and blind us to the true source of oppression
  • The surpluses that they control give the ruling class the power to create legal, political, cultural and religious institutions through which class domination can be legitimated and reinforced.
  • Religion is the “opiate of the masses.”
  • Religion provides a way to address suffering that does not call into question the cause of that suffering
  • It reproduces capitalist ideology
  • Marx and Engels argued that humans make religion in their own mage, that religion is an illusion, a projection of humanity onto the universe
  • Marx and Engels also sought to explain why people hold onto this illusion
  • Alienation arises from concrete social and political realities
  • In the end, they don’t see religion as a cause of this problem, but as a symptom
  • Our exploitation is hidden from us by alienation and ideology. So why is Marx so confident that class consciousness will develop?
  • Exploitation – as exploitation increases, so does the likelihood that workers will recognize it
  • Factory work brings workers together, and they will interact, discuss and organize
  • Workers would realize that deprivation is structured by class relations and not individual ability
  • A group identity would come from that awareness
  • An identity as a member of a class, in which others are in the same position
  • Marx thought that changes in communication and transportation would help worker’s movements spread from city to city
  • all history is the history of class struggle ultimately
  • capitalism leads to its own destruction by creating a working class that is aware of its own interests
  • the contradictions in the system will ultimately make people see that ideas benefit the ruling elite
  • once this happens capitalism will collapse

Crises of Capitalism:

  • This would be enhanced by the cyclical nature of capitalism
  • Market expansion leads to over-production, which leads to a financial crisis
  • One might see this, a Marxist would argue, in the overproduction of houses in Spain, Ireland and the United States
  • This means that capitalism passes through periodic crises.
  • These crises are accompanied by high unemployment
  • This tends to increasingly consolidate business in fewer and fewer hands
  • The small scale capitalists can’t compete, and the pool of workers grows
  • Can we relate this argument to our current time?
  • While this process increases the profits of the capitalists, it is also key to understanding why Marx believed capitalism sowed the seeds of its own destruction
  • The tensions between two opposites –workers and capitalists- could not be sustained forever
  • Without natural limits, capitalists will overproduce, leading to deeper and deeper economic crises
  • Ultimately this would lead to political revolution
  • like Hegel, he saw history as following an inevitable path
  • the destiny of the world was fixed, with communism as its inevitable conclusion


  • The world’s economies would pass through a series of stages
  • In the end, the contradictions inherent to capitalism would lead to a social revolution
  • The alienation inherent to capitalism would create class consciousness
  • Human history is the history of class struggle
  • Ultimately there would come a final struggle
  • The workers would take control of the means of production
  • There would no longer be classes
  • “From each according to his ability. To each according to his need.”
  • An inevitable process, which could not be stopped
  • Communism would be worldwide
  • It would start in the most industrialized countries, because the revolution would arise from the contradictions of industrial production
  • Thus, Marxists paradoxically embraced British colonialism, because they believed that it would hasten this progression

Human Nature

  • Every theory begins with assumptions
  • Considering how focused Marx was on exploitation, it may come as a surprise to read that he viewed humans as essentially altruistic and social by nature.
  • Altruism as defined as uncalculated commitment to the interests of others
  • We survive in a society with others
  • Human beings are unique among species in that they must create the world in which they live
  • He believed that the social structure of capitalism caused us to become self-centered and competitive. 
  • He believed that communism would be the economic system that most closely matched our natural state.
  • This seems surprising because so much of Marx’s writing is about conflict, exploitation, inequality and oppression
  • But Marx attributes exploitation to the social structure, not to man’s true nature

Parallels between Religion and Marxism

  • There is a paradox here
  • Marxism thought of itself as being rigidly scientific
  • But the theory is normative
  • It has a vision for how the world ought to be
  • And it was a utopian vision
  • Indeed, the philosophy had elements in common with millenarian movements
  • We will be discussing these later in the class, and how the English thinker Eric Hobsbawm described them
  • But for now, it’s enough to note that there are religious aspects to Marxism
  • The reliance on the book: Marx’s writings
  • The adoption of icons: images of Marx, Engels and Lenin
  • The vision of a wonderful future, in which the world as we know it would be transformed

What was essential in Marx?

  • Marx set the origins of modern conflict theory
  • The dynamics of the social structure is built around change
  • The structural system is built around conflict and contradiction
  • Conflict theorists see power as a central feature of society
  • Conflict theory is oriented towards a structural analysis of social inequality
  • This is a legacy of Marxism
  • Marx was also important because he thought that his task was to understand the relationship between what people intend with their actions, and what the historical record shows them to have achieved
  • Without this understanding history seems to be governed by a meaningless record of random events, a chaos of accidents
  • Historical materialism- an analysis that reveals how present action is contained by structures from the past
  • Marxism no longer a dominant theory, for many reasons, most of which are readily apparent to you
  • Even states that are officially Marxist –China, Vietnam- have moved to capitalism in practice
  • Marxist states had poor histories of long-term development, and meeting the basic needs of their population
  • Marxism has been associated with terrible violations of human rights, perhaps in part because it argued that what mattered were collective rights, rather than individual rights
  • Even in the late 1800s, it had become clear that the workers might not take the role that Marx had ascribed to them
  • Marx had expected the revolution to come in the most industrialized of nations, such as Great Britain
  • But when it happened, it took place in Russia, an economically underdeveloped nation
  • But elements of his theory remain influential
  • Neo-Marxists continue to make a potent critique of the existing global order
  • Next class, I want to watch a video on the origins of Communism
  • Called “Heaven on Earth,” and it was a documentary produced by PBS
  • Then I will talk Marxism in the following class in the context of international issues


  • I want you to see how Marxists today use this theory to explain world events, such as the financial crisis
  • I’m going to show you a brief clip
  • Video Resources: Marxism:
  • Cliff Bowman talks about basic Marxist ideals, and tries to apply it to financial crisis. I like this piece because it explains key ideas in a concise manner. A good piece.
Privacy & Cookies: This site uses cookies. See our Privacy Policy for details. By continuing to use this website, you agree to their use. If you do not consent, click here to opt out of Google Analytics.