No other than Karl Marx has been able to write a larger, more influential critical analysis of capitalism. In this chapter, Marx’s work and ideologies are presented to the reader, including the familiar Communist Manifesto, a political pamphlet. It was designed as a polemic that was intended to incite a specific group of people (factory workers, as Marx hones in on), under specific conditions (the early stages of industrial capitalism), in a specific location (Germany), at a specific time period (mid 19th century). Though its original purpose may not have been to be a complex or profound piece of political philosophy, it has served as an almost liberating work, through its meticulous critique of capitalism and the bifurcation of society into two categories: the proletariat and the bourgeoisie.
The proletariat is the property-less wage earner whose main quality is that they are being exploited. Conversely, the bourgeoisie are the middle-class owners of capital. Marx asserts that the private ownership of the means of production leads to the alienation of the workers. Alienation is a significant concept in regards to Marx, as he uses it to explain the unique experience of the proletariat. Alienation is a product of capitalism. The worker is deprived of creative potential and is working only to receive a wage; the book refers to this act as egregious as and comparable to “selling your soul” (Appelrouth & Edles, 2012). Marx refers to this phenomenon as “cog in the machine”; the worker becomes a commodity to be bought and sold. All forms of personal expression and creativity are suppressed, and the worker loses his humanness because of his position to fulfill only the role of a “wage earner” and nothing else. Alienation, Marx purports, inevitably occurs in thee stages: (1)Alienation from one’s work; (2) Alienation from yourself; (3) Alienation from society (one becomes in a disconnected state).
Even further, Marx pins the responsibility on not only the system of capitalism, but more specifically on the bourgeoisie. He describes the tactic of the bourgeoisie to lull the proletariat into a state of false consciousness. False consciousness is described as “the incorrect assessment of how the system works and of [the proletariat’s] subjugation and exploitation by the capitalist class” (Appelouth & Edles, 2012). Put differently, the working class is led to believe they are powerless in their exploitation, and the true relations of power in the capitalist system are repressed from the visual field of the worker. Being in a state of false consciousness is designed to keep the worker from recognizing what Marx termed as class consciousness. Class consciousness is the liberation from false consciousness; it is the recognition of the working class and its relationship in the means of production. It is reaching full awareness of one’s exploitation in the system, a critical moment for Marx that he was deeply invested in prompting for the working class.
Marx, being notable as a conflict theorist, was as aforementioned, heavily invested in stimulating the workers to reach their full awareness, and thus, potential. He attested that class struggle is the catalyst for social change; the best route to having a stronger society is for the working class to reach solidarity with one another, and bond together to reject the notion that they will be commodities bought and sold; they will reach their “species being” (self-actualization; reaching the creative essence of the human condition).
Modern Application of Theory
Marxist ideology rests on the interest in the breakdown of oppression and class. One of my personal favorite educators/writers is Paulo Freire (1921-1997), a Brazilian philosopher who was critical on the current pedagogical practices ever-present in the modern educational system. In his work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire describes a very Marxist educational model; he differentiates between the “Banking Approach” and the “Problem Posing Approach”, the former which could be akin to Marx’s description of the role of capitalism, the latter being comparable to his idea of reaching class consciousness and dismantling capitalism. The Banking Approach in regards to the educational sect, refers to the dehumanization of both the students and the teachers. The students are treated as “objects to be filled” (similar to be a “cog in the machine”), and the teachers only fill the role of relaying information from their position of power. It is a static (versus a dynamic) form of education, and is hampering on the creative entities that each student and teacher holds in them. It trains the students to view their condition as permanent rather than a snapshot of moving history (students are lulled into this false consciousness and left disempowered). Students are never able to gain critical education, because they cannot disagree with “facts” that come from the teacher, or else they are in danger of being punished with bad grades. In this way, education functions as an internalization of the guidelines of the oppressor, and thus stifling creativity and maintains the state of the world as is (oppressor in power). Freire sought to move toward the Problem-Posing model of education, which encourages a more dynamic agenda. Teachers and students should work together and promote critical thinking to increase the scope of perception for both parties. In this model, there is no “final state”, rather, people are progressively working through problems growing stronger in thought.
Though I side with Marx on many of his proposed ideas, my biggest critique is that many of his works and writings are left vague, and thus, readers are tasked with filling in the gaps and concocting their own interpretations, which leads to inconsistency and misunderstandings of what Marx was purporting. While Marx talked about communism as a solution to capitalist problems, and claimed that it would replace capitalism as the dominant ideology, he never quite explicitly addressed what exactly communism was. The only way people have inferred some of his ideas about what a better society would be, was when he’d write about supporting various issues that were coming up around the time he was writing (like public education, for example). Marx was unrivaled in his ability to identify problems, accurately describing how they work and why they happen. However, he never seriously proposed an answer to any of these problems.
Possible Research Questions
- Would Marx’s works be different if the working conditions during his time be the same as the working conditions today? If so, how different would they be?
- Does the insight of alienation imply anything in terms of the connection between Marxism and humanism?
Appelrouth, Scott and Laura Desfor Edles. 2012. Classical and Contemporary Sociological Theory. 2nd ed. Los Angeles, CA: Sage.