Marx, Karl: Impact on Sociology

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Marx, Karl: Impact on Sociology


The ideas of Karl Marx (18181883) on alienation, historical change, class relationships, the capitalist system, and social revolution have had a lasting impact on sociology, though interest in his work has fluctuated and sociologists have not always agreed about its relevance. In the classical period, for example, Émile Durkheims 1897 Review of Antonio Labriola, Essais sur la conception matérialiste de lhistoire (Essays on the Materialist Conception of History, 1896) argued that the materialist conception of historywhich he believed Marxs The Communist Manifesto (1848) representedwas unproven and contrary to established facts. In Bureaucracy, (1921) Max Weber offered a critical estimation of a socialist programs likelihood of success, while his The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905) forwarded an idealist explanation of capitalisms rise to complement Marxist-materialist accounts.

Georg Simmels The Philosophy of Money (1900) and Ferdinand Tönniess Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft (Community and Society, 1887) were also, in part, motivated by Marxs view of modernity as a unique historical experience. While these classical theorists approached Marx from a general sociological vantage point, later scholars adopted a Marxian perspective from which to consider sociological questions, including the influence of class structures on the state, the human sciences, and popular culture, as well as the dynamics of social stratification systems.

In early twentieth-century Europe, Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci (Selections from the Prison Notebooks ) inquired into how the ruling classs cultural hegemony can shape social institutions and thwart revolutionary spirit and action. In Germany, Georg Lukács similarly examined the relationship between History and Class Consciousness (1923). In his widely read and debated Ideology and Utopia (1929), Karl Mannheim (Hungarian born, schooled in Germany and France) tapped into Marxist ideas for research on the sociology of knowledge. Scholars at the Institute for Social Researchlater known collectively as the Frankfurt school and including most notably Herbert Marcuse (Reason and Revolution, 1941; One-Dimensional Man, 1964), Max Horkheimer (Critical Theory, 1968), and Theodor Adorno (Negative Dialectics, 1966)examined how commodity markets and bureaucratic planning shape science and popular culture (e.g., Horkheimer and Adorno 1972). Also in Germany, Jürgen Habermas adopted similar questions but further asked how ruling classes and their state representatives might suffer a Legitimation Crisis (1973), as well as how free communicative spaces can exist within the rubric of bureaucratic capitalism (The Theory of Communicative Action, vols. 1 and 2, 1981).

In France, Georges Canguilhem (Ideology and Rationality in the History of the Life Sciences, 1977) and Maurice Merleau-Ponty (Adventures of the Dialectic, 1955) appealed to Marxs ideas in their research on the human sciences. Their wider influence came through their students, most notably the structuralism of Louis Althusser (For Marx, 1965) and the poststructuralism of Michel Foucault (The Archaeology of Knowledge, 1969; Discipline and Punish, 1975). Later postmodern theorists such as Jacques Derrida (Spectres of Marx, 1993) and Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe (Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, 1985) were sympathetic to Marxs views for capturing the contemporary moment and animating political struggle, though they argued for incorporating nontraditional Marxist concerns such as racial, gender, national, and sexual identities into radical politics.

In England, historian E. P. Thompsons The Making of the English Working Class (1963) provided insight into class dynamics and historical social change, while Ralph Miliband (The State in Capitalist Society, 1969) debated Greek theorist Nicos Poulantzas (1969) on the relationship between social classes and the statethat is, relative autonomy versus instrumentalist theories. This dialogue inspired reexaminations of political power in Marxist terms, such as those found in Bob Jessops The Capitalist State: Marxist Theories and Methods (1982). Also in England, Anthony Giddens adopted features of Marxs materialist approach in constructing New Rules of Sociological Method (1976) and his theory of structuration (Giddens 1984).

Outside the centers of European power, others picked up Marxian questions. African Marxist Frantz Fanons The Wretched of the Earth (1961) offered a trenchant critique of French imperialism in Algeria. In Latin America, economist Raúl Prebischs The Economic Development of Latin America and Its Problems (1950) examined relations of unequal exchange between core capitalist societies and those on their periphery in the world market. This perspective influenced dependency theory, whose main advocate was the German American scholar Andre Gunder Frank (Capitalism and Underdevelopment in Latin America, 1967). Frank argued that the underdeveloped conditions of many countries in the Americas resulted from economic and political exploitation visited upon them by capitalist powers. This perspective attracted the attention of Chilean president Salvador Allende and former Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso while in political exile.

In the United States, where Marx was generally eclipsed for the first half of the twentieth century, economist Paul Sweezys works, The Theory of Capitalist Development (1942) and Monopoly Capital (1966), were influential in keeping a Marxist dialogue alive. The postwar period found sociologists such as C. Wright Mills using Marxs (and Webers) work for a critical analysis of The Power Elite (1956), which was said to dominate political, economic, and military institutions. Adopting dialectics as his viewpoint, Bertell Ollman (1968) revealed the objective and subjective elements in Marxs approach to class and examined how the humanism in his early works shed light on the question of alienation (Alienation: Marxs Conception of Man in Capitalist Society, 1971). Having previously fled Nazi Germany (Adorno and Horkheimer found a home at the New School for Social Research in New York City and Marcuse at the University of California, San Diego), Frankfurt school scholars and American Marxists, in combination with the U.S. political-cultural climate in the 1960s and 1970s, made conditions conducive for a new generation of scholars to rediscover Marx. Interest in Marxs humanism and alienation brought attention to the Frankfurt schools work on the culture industries and the mass media in the works of Douglas Kellner and Stuart Ewen. Other theorists of popular culture, such as Frederic Jameson, followed the postmodern lead to inquire about the cultural logic of late capitalism.

Marxs impact on sociology advanced elsewhere on both theoretical and research fronts. Marxs political economy inspired Althussers structural Marxism, which theorized the operation of social structures outside of human agency, and analytical Marxism, which placed the rational actor at the center of analysis (Elster 1985; Roemer 1986). One influential perspective sharing this latter approach was Erik Olin Wrights (1976) work on the contradictory class locations in advanced capitalism, as well as his studies of Class, Crisis, and the State (1978). Theda Skocpols States and Social Revolutions (1979) advanced class analysis through a historical-comparative study of state formation, while Michael Burawoy (1990) examined how Marxs scientific commitments inform the history of political strategies of radical movements. Scholars outside of conventional Marxism, such as feminist theorists and researchers (Smith 1977) and criminologists (Richard Quinney), increasingly incorporated Marxist ideas in an intellectual climate that also brought renewed attention to the work on race relations previously done by W. E. B. Du Bois and Oliver Cox, each of whom Marx had influenced.

Perhaps the most influential strand of Marxist thought has been Immanuel Wallersteins (19741989) World Systems Analysis. This perspective arose in dialogue with Russian theories about Asiatic modes of production, the French Annales school and its analyses of historical periods of the longue durée (Marc Bloch, Lucien Febvre, Fernand Braudel), and Latin American theorists of unequal exchange and other dependency theorists (world-systems analysis ). After their introduction into the discipline, Wallersteins models of core-periphery relations, the interstate system, long waves of capitalist development, the rise of antisystemic movements, and the transition out of the capitalist world economy have ever since shaped the work of world-systems analysts. Used in studies of development, social stratification (including race, class, and gender studies), and the sociology of knowledge, world-systems analysis arguably reached the status of a paradigm in itself by the late twentieth century.

Throughout the second half of the twentieth century, the number of journals devoted to Marxist studies proliferated, including the New Left Review (1960), Capital & Class (1977), Thesis Eleven (1980), Praxis International (1981), Critical Sociology (1987; formerly The Insurgent Sociologist, 19691987), Rethinking Marxism (1988), and Historical Materialism (1997). Not limited to sociologists, these journals provided a home for a wide variety of Marxist scholarship, something less in evidence in sociology prior to the 1960 to 1970 period. Marxist scholars also increasingly found professional institutionalization within reach both in the university system and in sociologys major organizations. For instance, in 1975 the American Sociological Association officially incorporated a Marxist section.

Marxs political-economic, materialist, and dialectical thought continues to inform research programs in sociology. Control of productive resources is a source of social power in capitalist society, shaping the conditions of work, discourse in the mass media, and state policies worldwide. These relationships have grown in scope since Marxs day, as have attempts by antisystemic movements to find local autonomy, cross-national cooperation, and solutions to ecological crises. With capitalist society and how to study it as its central subject matter, Marxs work remains a source of insight for all sociologists interested in studying the origins, the structure, and the nature of the change within the capitalist system.

SEE ALSO Communism; Marxism


Burawoy, Michael. 1990. Marxism as Science: Historical Challenges and Theoretical Growth. American Sociological Review 55 (12): 775793.

Elster, Jon. 1985. Making Sense of Marx. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Giddens, Anthony. 1984. The Constitution of Society: Outline of the Theory of Structuration. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press.

Horkheimer, Max, and Theodor Adorno. 1972. The Dialectic of Enlightenment. Trans. John Cumming. New York: Herder and Herder.

Ollman, Bertell. 1968. Marxs Use of Class. American Journal of Sociology 73 (5): 573580.

Poulantzas, Nicos. 1969. The Problem of the Capitalist State. New Left Review 58: 6778.

Roemer, John, ed. 1986. Analytical Marxism. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Smith, Dorothy E. 1977. Feminism and Marxism: A Place to Begin, a Way to Go. Vancouver, British Columbia: New Star.

Wallerstein, Immanuel. 19741989. The Modern World-System. Vols. 13. New York: Academic Press.

Weber, Max. 1921. Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft [Bureaucracy]. Tübingen, Germany: J. C. B. Mohr.

Wright, Erik Olin. 1976. Class Boundaries in Advanced Capitalist Societies. New Left Review 98: 341.

Paul Paolucci