Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Sociology of Karl Marx

Marx's sociology is always a critical sociology. He intends to produce not only an understanding but also a critique of modern western society (i.e., capitalism).  However, according to Marx, this criticism can't be based solely on abstract, timeless, or utopian moral ideals.  It has to be based as well on a thorough, concrete analysis of capitalist society, which will reveal its inner dynamics and the way in which it creates the objective possibilities for its own transcendence (through revolution).  Marx is always scornful of mere moralizing, and of socialists who, as he says somewhere, know nothing about capitalism except that it is bad.  He sees capitalism as a stage in a process of historical development, one whose emergence had a certain inner logic, even necessity, but which will just as necessarily give way to a different (and higher) kind of society.

Marx's criticism of capitalist (and pre-capitalist) societies is rooted in a powerful conception of human nature, even though Marx would never admit this. This conception involves not a fixed set of drives or instincts, but a set of capacities or possibilities, the realization of which makes people fully human. Human beings have the capacity to freely, consciously, and actively shape their lives in cooperation with others; this is precisely what makes them human.  As long as they are not able to do so, as long as they are the pawns of other persons or of impersonal natural or social forces beyond their control, they are not fully human.

For Marx, then, freedom, community, and human fulfillment all go together, and he expresses this unity in the idea of communism. History is the conflict-ridden and often contradictory process through which human beings develop and fully realize their nature.  Marx thus means his vision of human possibility not simply as an ahistorical abstraction, but as the goal toward which history is actually moving, albeit in indirect, unintended ways.

All hitherto existing societies, in contrast, are characterized in different ways by unfreedom, isolation, and the lack of fulfillment (or outright denial) of human possibilities.  This condition is captured in the term alienation or estrangement.  Although Marx rarely uses the term after writing The German Ideology in the mid-1840s, the concept remains crucial throughout his work.  Central to this concept is the idea that in all societies up to and including the present, human beings come to be dominated by their own creations­--including their system of social relationships.  Much of Marx's work analyzes the specific ways in which human beings are dominated by social forces that confront them as irresistible alien powers.  Alienation, however, is not inherent in the human condition; it is the product of certain forms of social organization and can be overcome.

Marx integrated his moral vision into a complex analysis of how history works and how societies fit together, which he and Engels sometimes called historical materialism, and into a detailed critique of capitalism.

Marx's writing can be divided into two periods.  From 1843 to 1848, he developed the basic outline of his thought, including his vision of human nature, a general conception of societies and how they change, and an ambitious agenda for a total analysis of modern societies.  From 1848 to nearly the end of his life (in 1883), he labored to complete one important part of this agenda, the critique of "political economy." At the same time, he poured immense effort into political writing of various kinds.

Summaries on Marx: