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Marxist Perspective for Understanding Society
Although the United States and other Western nations fought a cold war against Communism for a significant part of the twentieth century, Western nations were not immune to the influence of Karl Marx, an intellectual and ideological founder of Communism. Even during the Cold War, Marxism entered disciplines in social sciences in the United States and students of sociology, history, political science, and a few other disciplines can no longer ignore Marxist perspective for understanding society today. Indeed, key components of Marxist perspective -- all of them revolving around the basic premise that societies can be defined by class struggle -- are very helpful in analyzing how a society functions. And Marxism today is not confined to the writings of Marx only but has been enriched by other scholars who helped to make Marxism a very useful and important tool for evaluating complexities of societies.
Marxism was formulated in the nineteenth century as a critique of Capitalism. Although that is the main perspective of Marxism in general, there are several "sub-perspectives" Marx's followers have developed since Marx's death. The main principle of Marxism is the idea that social life is the result of conflict of interests. The fundamental conflict between the bourgeoisie (those who own the means of production) and the proletariat (the working class) define social life. Marxism does not, however, use the idea of "conflict of interests" as a mere descriptive tool but also an analytical tool that explains why and how societies change. It states that the change takes place through a conflict between different social classes who pursue their different, often opposed, set of interests in society. Marxism therefore is not primarily concerned with individuals but groups of people ("Marxism" 2005).
Marxism is also a political theory and has two main concerns. The first deals with the criticism of the Capitalism system and political as well as economic contradictions within it. And the second deals with the proposal to establish a Socialist society with the gradual and eventual goal to establish a Communist society. Marxism suggests that Capitalism is essentially exploitative and oppressive, members of the upper class maintaining control over the working class. Capitalism is considered to be a system which allows a minority to own most of the wealth, keeping the masses in poverty and in wage-slave conditions. Marxism advocates Socialism because in this system the wealth is owned by the proletariat. Marxism also suggests that because of Capitalism's exploitative nature, the working-class will eventually rebel against the upper class, overthrowing the system and establishing Socialism and eventually Communism (Andreou, 1998).
Marxism further argues that as a political theory Capitalism is expansionary and leads to imperialism. One of the first Marxists who espoused this critique was Vladimir Lenin. Scholars generally define imperialism as motivated by search for raw materials and cheap labor in foreign countries which can be colonized and exploited. Lenin argued that Capitalism is the chief cause of this process, inducing monopolies to expand to foreign lands. According to Lenin, in the initial stage of Capitalism, businesses are relatively small and rely upon the labor of local workers. But as the businesses grow in size, establish effective monopolies in domestic markets, and own substantial capital that may be exported, they search for foreign markets and lands. In other words, Capitalism not only exploits the working-class at home but also abroad. Marxists today maintain that the worldwide inequality of the modern era is the result of Capitalism's global triumph (Burns, 2011).
Marxists also maintain that the ruling elite in Capitalist societies use hegemonic control over the masses. This concept was developed by such Marxists as Antonio Gramsci and Louis Althusser. They argue that the elite in Capitalist societies use two main tools to establish control. The first is the use of force (police, Army, mercenaries). Althusser called them "Repressive State Apparatuses." And the second is through socialization and propaganda by using mass media, social workers, religious institutions, and business-friendly labor organizations. According to Althusser, these are "Ideological State Apparatuses." The Capitalist ruling elite may resort to the use of both forms of control, but Capitalist democracies generally use the ideological state apparatus, as it is much more convenient and effective, Marxists argue, to convince the working-class that Capitalism is the best of all possible worlds. One of the ways of doing this, for example, is to use euphemistic terms such as "free market" to describe what is otherwise Capitalist exploitation ("Gramsci, Althusser and Hegemonic Struggle," 2009).
A related concept that Marxists use is the concept of "false consciousness," which refers to the inability of the workers, serfs, and peasants to understand that they are in a state of exploitation. The working class is effectively co-opted by the Capitalist elite to believe in the values of Capitalism and remain in a state of "false consciousness," i.e. they fail to see that they are being exploited and oppressed. This concept was briefly discussed by Marx's colleague and co-author Engels but developed further by the twentieth-century Marxists such as Georg Lukacs and Karl Mannheim. Lukacs argued that the concept of "false consciousness" was related to a dialectical theory of knowledge, while Mannheim used the concept to analyze sociology of knowledge. "The sociology of knowledge attempts to provide a theoretical account of the relationship between knowledge systems and the social conditions within which they emerge," according to Little (n.d.): "this provides a theoretical framework in terms of which to understand the workings of a system of ideology. Mannheim supports the idea that the social position of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat deeply influence the forms of knowledge that they embody; and in each case, he argues that these forms of material bias lead to a systematic falsification of social reality." Marxists therefore try to expose the techniques the elite use to keep the masses in a state of "false consciousness."
Although Marx was primarily concerned with class struggle as the defining characteristic of society, critics of other forms of oppression such as racial and gender discrimination relied on Marxist perspective to analyze racism and sexism. The espousal of Marxist critique by scholars of race and gender studies is not a coincidence, as these critiques are also based on the idea that society is defined by competing interests. Racism refers to systematic oppression of racial minorities, for example by promoting the ideas of white supremacy and black inferiority. Scholars of race studies also link Capitalism to racism in a global scale, as the colonial masters in the modern era came out of Europe and conquered much of the world inhabited by people of color. Marxist critique of racism maintains that it is easier for the Capitalist elite to pay lower wages to nonwhite workers than to white workers, thus eliminating effective unity among wage earners. This technique will also keep white workers in a state of "false consciousness," making them direct their anger at nonwhite workers rather than their true oppressors (Bohmer, 1998).
Marxist critique of race relations sometimes clash with subjective criticism of racism. While subjective critics argue that racism is sometimes primordial or exist outside the influence of the mode of production, Marxists argue that racism is the function of Capitalist exploitation. For Marxists, racism is either "false consciousness" exhibited by white workers or a tool used by the bourgeoisie or a combination of the two. In a classless society of Communism, racism does not exist. Nevertheless, many scholars influenced by Marx argue that Marxism and race critique are compatible and explain the same problem. In his critique of inequality in the educational sector, Leonardo (2004) refers to the "well-acknowledged social scientific fact" that class determines student achievement. He notes that members of rich families perform better at schools because of the greater availability of resources and opportunities and that the lower class is primarily represented by members of racial minorities. He explains: "In U.S. schools, Latino and African-American students face interlocking effects of racial, economic, and educational structures. From the outset this establishes the centrality of both class and race analysis to school outcomes and policies designed to address them" (Leonardo, 2004, p. 483).
There is a similar relationship between Marxism and feminist theory. Feminists often argue that Marxism lacks essential tools for explaining gender relations. They also argue that Marxists have neglected gender studies by focusing economic mode of production and class struggle. But Feminists share with Marxism the idea that society is characterized by conflict of interests. According to them, the fundamental struggle in society is between men and women. But many scholars have reconciled Marxism with Feminism, arguing that Engels was one of the first to critique oppression of women and that gender oppression is also ultimately rooted in Capitalism. Most sophisticated Marxists today argue that there is an interplay between and among race, class, and gender that allows the Capitalist elite to maintain control (Gimenez, 2001).
Marxism is an analytical tool that is useful in explaining how society functions. There are also limitations of…[continue]
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