According to Marx, society is constructed from classes. In all societies, except the simplest, there are two major classes and it is people's relationship to the means of production that determines which class they belong to. The most powerful class is that which owns the means of production (The Bourgeoisie), and the least powerful is that which has to sell its labour to make a living (The Proletariat). However, in fact, the past century has seen the emergence of a middle class of professionals, managers, and office workers, between the Bourgeoisie and Proletariat.
While these groups do not own the means of production, they benefit from exercising authority on behalf of the Bourgeoisie, and have higher status, better income and life chances than the working class. Major changes according to Marx are as a result of new forces of production. He used the change to capitalism from feudal society, the feudal nobility and the land serfs, which was based upon heredity, and so there was little movement within the system. Feudalism was based upon ownership of the land.
The land serfs had to give part of there produce to the landowners; in return, the landowners protected them from rival noblemen. Therefore, the change between this system and capitalism resulted in contradictions. For example, capitalism is based upon wage labour, whereas feudalism was based upon mutual obligations. The new order, capitalism, sweeps out the old social relationships of feudalism and replaced them with new. Eventually Marx believed there would be a final epoch where a communistic or socialist society would take over from capitalism.
This will not be the result of a new force of production, but will get rid of the contradictions that so far characterised changes between Epochs. Collective production would remain, but ownership would change dramatically. Instead of the Bourgeoisie owning the means of production, ownership would be collective and members would share wealth that their labour produced. This new infrastructure would not be based upon exploitation and contradictions, instead a new final epoch would be born, one, which would have no need to change. It would thus result in the end of history.
This presents a major limitation in the credibility of Marxism, as the revolution that Marx believed would occur, of course never has. Louis Althusser suggests that this is because "it is very difficult for the masses to overthrow capitalism as the superstructure works together to prevent a revolution. However, even though Communism has never emerged, Dahrendorf cites five changes of the social structure that have been sufficient to produce post-capitalist society, suggesting a new epoch has emerged, one which Marx had not anticipated.
Firstly 'The Decomposition of Capital': the link between ownership and control of industry has weakened through technological advances and the development of the stock exchange. Secondly 'The Decomposition of Labour': Workers have become increasingly aware of differences between themselves. Thirdly 'The Development of a New Middle-Class', a category rather than a class in terms of Marx's use of this concept, and is made up of white-collar workers, such as Teachers, Accountants, Surveyors, Nurses, and Clerks, which have emerged to further complicate the class system.
Also 'The Growth of Social Mobility': The class system does appear to have some form of Meritocracy, where individuals can move between classes, most often this is intergenerational between occupations. Finally 'The Growth of Equality', both Social and economic, have been reduced both through the Welfare State and the Human Rights Act, 1998. Dahrendorf concludes that society can be characterised correctly in terms of conflict between competing interest groups. In the light of these arguments Dahrendorf points out what he considers the weakness of Marx's theories.
For him, the basic weakness of Marx's approach is the way that he ties power – economic and social, political to the ownership of the means of production. Capitalism has remained durable, in the west it has survived for two hundred years. Marx claimed this is as a result of the role of the superstructure, which is shaped by the infrastructure. So for example, the ruling class elite had monopolised political power, laws, and other institutions to maintain their control. By propagating the ideas of equality and freedom they have thus managed to legitimate their power and hide from the people the true nature of their exploitation.
For example, the relationship between the worker and the owner of the means of production is seen as an equal exchange. However, in reality it is not, although there is a degree of choice of who to work for, in reality we must work to survive. In Marx's words, all we do is exchange one wage slavery for another. However it can also be argued that it is the State (the bourgeoisie) that is helping to reduce inequalities. For example, compulsory education has given the working class more chances of upward social mobility and the welfare state provides a safety net guaranteeing a minimum income for all.
Even so, just as Marx outlined, the owners of the means of production still have much more power and influence than the majority. For example, the privileged rich who have attended public schools hold the major positions in the state, industry, banking, and the mass media. More importantly, the ruling elite is able to dominate the ideology of the time through the Superstructure (The legal system, Education and the Mass Media) which he refers to as the 'ruling class ideology' since they justify and legitimate ruling class dominance and project a distorted picture of reality, moreover, to stop us seeing the contradictions.
Marx further argues that the upper class directly benefits from the criminal law and selective law enforcement, and states that any general support, from the Proletariat, for the legal system reflects a false consciousness within society. Marx calls this a false consciousness of reality. However he also claimed that it will only work so long and eventually people will see through it, creating a revolution against the ruling class. On the other hand, it is also observed that Legislation is passes by a democratically elected Parliament, chosen in free elections.
Therefore, the law may be said to represent the will of the majority not just the ruling elite. Even so, the law is still said to favour the Bourgeoisie, such as those who try to weaken trade unions and make it difficult to take legal strike action. In the Guardian ICM survey, 67% of the population agreed that there was 'one law for the rich and one for the poor'. In spite of all the critique surrounding him, it is no exaggeration to say that, of all theorists of society, Karl Marx has deeply touched and affected all our lives.
Our modern political landscape reflects divisions established in Marx's time, and in part under his influence. Whatever their protestations, the Labour Party and the Conservative Party were profoundly affected by the challenge of Marxist movements, summarised in one of the biggest selling works in history, The Communist Manifesto. It has been claimed by many that Marxism is no longer applicable to modern day society, however, it cannot be denied that his line of reasoning at the time of writing was credible, and in response, evoked much debate over the function, position and future of society.
Browne, Ken, An Introduction to Sociology, Cambridge: Polity Press, 1992. Elster, Jon, An Introduction to Karl Marx, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986. Haralambos, Michael, Sociology: themes and perspectives: 5th edition, London: Collins, 2000. Marx, Karl and Frederick Engels, Basic writings on politics and philosophy, London: Fontana, 1969. O'Donnell, Mike, Introduction to Sociology: 4th Edition, Walton-on-Thames: Nelson, 1997 Taylor, Steve, The sociology of suicide (Sociology in focus), Harlow: Longman, 1988. Hannah Danielle Minton 13th December 2002