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Book Report: Karl Marx, Economist/Sociologist

Karl Marx The work of Marx, like that of other philosophers and thinkers in the 19th century, owed a great deal to the social context into which he was born and thus the issues he tackled were often similar to those of concern to his contemporaries. It was Marx who decided to go beyond the academia and theoretical study and produce an active theory or a practical philosophy, which could provide a basis for political action. Whilst at University in Berlin, Marx adopted and later modified the philosophy and principles of Hegel, centrally his dialectal mode of logic. Marx, rather than focusing on dialectic of ideas as did Hegel, was looking to apply this method to the material world. This was a step to import the dialectic from the realm of philosophy into the realm of social science and thus an important step in the history of sociology. Marx’s theories were also influenced by other sources such as French socialist thought particularly the work of Saint-Simon, concerned with social progress as a result of workers leading the country. The political economy of Britain was another as was his friendship with Engels, both of which had an effect on Marx’s transformation from a radical democrat to a communist revolutionary. Marx’s theory of society originates from the simple observation that humans must produce food and material goods in order to survive. As a result of this they must enter into social relationships with others, and production becomes a social enterprise. Alongside this exists the ‘forces of production’, a technical component to manufacturing including the technology, scientific knowledge and raw materials used in the process of production. According to Marx, each stage of development in these forces will necessarily correspond with a certain form of social relationships of production, and the two of these components combine to form the ‘infrastructure’ or economic base of a society. This infrastructure largely shapes the other elements of society known as the ’superstructure’ and for this reason political, educational, legal institutions and belief and value systems are largely determined by economic factors. Marx claimed that all historical societies contained some contradictions, which means that they cannot survive indefinitely in their existing mode. These contradictions involve the exploitation of one social group by another. This creates an underlying conflict of interest since one-group gains at the expense of another. As mentioned previously, Marx drew upon Hegel’s dialectic, which can be loosely defined as trying to understand change that occurs through conflict. However, while Hegel saw this conflict as taking place with ideas, Marx saw these ruptures as occurring in material conditions in the form of social revolution. Therefore, according to Marx, the conflicts of interest within society provoke the rising class to overthrow the present system and create a new one. This corresponds accurately to the feudal relations of production, which acted to repress the capitalism, which was developing within feudal society. Capitalism therefore overthrew lord-serf relationships and replaced them with a new set of relations known as the bourgeoisie or dominant class and the proletariat or subordinate class. Marx believed that this pattern will recur and lead to the collapse and replacement of capitalism with communism and despite the fact that this process has not yet taken place, Marxist thought still holds great relevance and plausibility in contemporary society.

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