Lewis A. Coser: Karl Marx

From Lewis A. Coser, Masters of Sociological Thought: Ideas in Historical and Social Context.

The Work

Karl Marx was a socialist theoretician and organizer, a major figure in the history of economic and philosophical thought, anda great social prophet. But it is as a sociological theorist that he commands our interest here.

The Overall Doctrine

Society, according to Marx, comprised a moving balance of antithetical forces that generate social change by their tension and struggle. Marx’s vision was based on an evolutionary point of departure. For him, struggle rather than peaceful growth was the engine of progress; strife was the father of all things, and social conflict the core of historical process. This thinking was in contrast with most of the doctrines of his eighteenth century predecessors, but in tune with much nineteenth century thought.

To Marx the motivating force in history was the manner in which men relate to one another in their continuous struggle to wrest their livelihood from nature. “The first historical act is . . . the production of material life itself. This is indeed a historical act, a fundamental condition of all history.”1 The quest for a sufficiency in eating and drinking, for habitation and for clothing were man’s primary goals at the dawn of the race, and these needs are still central when attempts are made to analyze the complex anatomy of modern society. But man’s struggle against nature does not cease when these needs are gratified. Man is a perpetually dissatisfied animal. When primary needs have been met, this “leads to new needs—and this production of new needs is the first historicalact.”2 New needs evolve when means are found to allow the satisfaction of older ones.

In the effort to satisfy primary and secondary needs, men engage in antagonistic cooperation as soon as they leave the primitive, communal stage of development. As soon as a division of labor emerges in human society, that division leads to the formation of antagonistic classes, the prime actors in the historical drama.

Marx was a relativizing historicist according to whom all social relations between men, as well as all systems of ideas, are specifically rooted in historical periods. “Ideas and categories are no more eternal than the relations which they express. They are historical and transitory products.”For example, whereas the classical economists had seen the tripartite division among landowners, capitalists, and wage earners as eternally given in the natural order of things, Marx considered such categories as typical only for specific historical periods, as products of an historically transient state of affairs.

Historical specificity is the hallmark of Marx’s approach.When he asserted, for example, that all previous historical periods were marked by class struggles, he immediately added that these struggles differed according to historical stages. In marked distinction to his radical predecessors who had tended to see history as a monotonous succession of struggles between rich and poor, or between the powerless and the powerful, Marx maintained that, although class struggles had marked all history, the contenders in the battle had changed over time. Although there might have been some similarity between the journeymen of the late Middle Ages who waged their battle against guild masters and the modern industrial workers who confronted capitalists, the contenders were, nevertheless, in a functionally different situation. The character of the overall social matrix determined the forms of struggle which were contained within it. The fact that modern factory workers, as distinct from medieval journey-men, are forever expropriated from command over the means of production and hence forced to sell their labor power to those who control these means makes them a class qualitatively different form artisans or journeymen. The fact that modern workers are formally “free” to sell their labor while being existentially constrained to do so makes their condition historically specific and functionally distinct from that of earlier exploited classes.

Marx’s thinking contrasted sharply with that of Comte, as well as of Hegel, for whom the evolution of mankind resulted primarily from the evolution of ideas or of the human spirit. Marx took as his point of departure the evolution in man’s material conditions, the varying ways in which men combined together in order to gain a livelihood. “Legal relations as well as form of state are to be grasped neither from themselves nor from the so-called general development of the human mind, but rather have their roots in the material conditions of life, the sum total of which Hegel . . . combines under the name of ‘civil society’. . .The anatomy of civil society is to be sought in political economy.”4

The change of social systems could not be explained, according to Marx, by extra-social factors such as geography or climate, since these remain relatively constant in the face of major historical transformations. Nor can such change be explained by reference to the emergence of novel ideas. The genesis and acceptance of ideas depend on something that is not an idea. Ideas are not prime movers but are the reflection, direct or sublimated, of the material interests that impel men in their dealings with others.5

It was from Hegel, though perhaps also from Montesquieu, that Marx learned the holistic approach that regarded society as a structurally interrelated whole. Consequently, for Marx, any aspect of that whole—be it legal codes, systems of education,religion, or art—could not be understood by itself. Societies, moreover, are not only structured wholes but developing totalities. His own contribution lay in identifying an independent variable that played only a minor part in Hegel’s system: the mode of economic production.

Although historical phenomena were the result of an interplay of many components, all but one of them, the economic factor,were in the last analysis dependent variables. “The political, legal, philosophical, literary, and artistic development rests on the economic. But they all react upon one another and upon the economic base. It is not the case that the economic situation is the sole active cause and that everything else is merely a passive effect. There is, rather, a reciprocity within a field of economic necessity which in the last instance always asserts itself.6

The sum total of the relations of production, that is, the relations men establish with each other when they utilize existing raw materials and technologies in the pursuit of their productive goals, constitute the real foundations upon which the whole cultural superstructure of society comes to be erected. By relations of production Marx does not only mean technology, though this is an important part, but the social relations people enter into by participating in economic life. “Machinery is no more an economic category than is the ox which draws the plough. The modern workshop, which is based on the use of machinery, is a social relation of production, an economic category.”7

The mode of economic production is expressed in relationships between men, which are independent of any particular individual and not subject to individual wills and purposes.

In the social production which men carry on they enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will; these relations of production correspond to a definite stage of development of their material powers of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of reality—the real foundation, on which legal and political superstructures arise and to which definite forms of social consciousness correspond. The mode of production of material life determines the general character of the social, political and spiritual processes of life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being determines their consciousness.8

Basic to these observations is that men are born into societies in which property relations have already been determined. These property relations in turn give rise to different social classes. Just as a man cannot choose who is to be his father, so he has no choice as to his class. (Social mobility, though recognized by Marx, plays practically no role in his analysis.) Once a man is ascribed to a specific class by virtue of his birth, once he has become feudal lord or a serf, an industrial worker or a capitalist, his mode of behavior is prescribed for him. “Determinate individuals, who are productively active in a definite way, enter into. . . determinate social and political relations.”9 This class role largely defines the man. In his preface to Das Kapital Marx wrote, ” Here individuals are dealt with only in so far as they are personifications of economic categories, embodiments of particular class-relations and class-interests.” In saying this, Marx does not deny the operation of other variables concentrates on class roles as primary determinants.

Different locations in the class spectrum lead to different class interests. Such differing interests flow not from class consciousness or the lack of it among individuals, but from objective positions in relation to the process of production. Men may well be unaware of their class interests and yet be moved by them, as it were, behind their backs.

Despite his emphasis on the objective determinants of man’s class-bound behavior, Marx was not reifying society and class at the expense of individual actors. “It is above all necessary to avoid postulating ‘society’ once more as an abstraction confronting the individual. The individual is a social being. The manifestation of his life—even when it does not appear directly in the form of social manifestation, accomplished in association with other men—is therefore a manifestation and affirmation of social life.”10 Man is inevitably enmeshed in a network of social relations which constrain his actions; therefore attempts to abolish such constraints altogether are bound to fail. Man is human only in society, yet it is possible for him at specific historical junctures to change the nature of these constraints.

The division of society into classes gives rise to political, ethical, philosophical, and religious views of the world, views which express existing class relations and tend either to consolidate or to undermine the power and authority of the dominant class. “The ideas of the ruling class are, in every age, the ruling ideas: i.e., the class which is the dominant material force in society is at the same time its dominant intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production.”11 However, oppressed classes, although hampered by the ideological dominance of oppressors, generate counter-ideologies to combat them. In revolutionary or prerevolutionary periods it even happens that certain representatives of the dominant class shift allegiance. Thus, “some of the bourgeois ideologists, who have raised themselves to the level of comprehending theoretically the historical movement as whole”12 go over to the proletariat.

Every social order is marked by continuous change in the material forces of production, that is, the forces of nature that can be harnessed by the appropriate technologies and skills. As a consequence, “the social relations of production are altered, transformed, with the change and development of the material means of production, of the forces of production.”13 At a certain point the changed social relations of production come into conflict with existing property relations, that is, with existing divisions between owners and non owners. When this is the case, representatives of ascending classes come to perceive existing property relations as a fetter upon further development. Those classes that expect to gain the ascendancy by a change in property relations become revolutionary.

New social relationships begin to develop within older social structures and result from contradictions and tensions within that structure at the same time as they exacerbate them. For example, new modes of production slowly emerged within late feudal society and allowed the bourgeoisie, which controlled these new modes of production, effectively to challenge the hold of the classes that had dominated the feudal order. As the bourgeois mode of production gained sufficient specific weight, it burst asunder the feudal relations in which it first made its appearance. “The economic structure of capitalist society has grown out of the economic structure of feudal society. The dissolution of the latter sets free the elements of theformer.”14 Similarly, the capitalist mode of production brings into being a proletarian class of factory workers. As these men acquire class consciousness, they discover their fundamental antagonism to the bourgeois class and band together to overthrow a regime to which they owe their existence.”The proletariat carries out the sentence which private property, by creating the proletariat, passes upon itself.”15 New social and economic forms are fashioned in the matrix of their predecessors.


  1. Karl Marx, Selected Writings in Sociology and Social Philosophy, newly translated by T.B. Bottomore (London, McGraw-Hill, 1964), p. 60. I have used this useful volume throughout, since it is easily available. Other easily available editions, such as the Moscow edition of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Selected Works, 2 vols. (Moscow, Foreign Language Publishing House, 1962), have also been used extensively so as to facilitate students’ search for relevant materials. In some cases, where the translation was outmoded, I have slightly modified it.
  2. Selected Writings.
  3. Karl Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy, Chapter II, p. 1.
  4. Selected Works, I, p. 362
  5. I have relied heavily in this paragraph, and in those that follow, on Sidney Hook’s brilliant article, “Materialism,” in the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences (New York, Macmillan, 1933).
  6. Selected Works, II, p. 304. This is a late formulation, earlier statements are considerably more dogmatic in their insistence on the priority of economic factors.
  7. Selected Writings p. 93.
  8. Ibid., p. 51.
  9. Ibid., p. 74.
  10. Ibid., p. 77.
  11. Ibid., p. 78.
  12. Selected Works, I. P. 43.
  13. Selected Writings, p. 147.
  14. Ibid., p. 133.
  15. Ibid., p. 232

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