Classical Marxist Theory: The Basics


In The Communist Manifesto (), Karl Marx (1818-1883), the father of classical Marxist theory, presented the theory that the history of society is one of class struggles, a constant collision between the oppressed and the oppressor.

This was a constant fight that ended in a revolutionary reconstitution of society or in the common ruin of conflicting classes. Marx asserted that history displayed an arrangement of societies into various orders and gradations of social ranks, which showed that there were always subordinate and superior classes.

During the time of Marx’s writing, nineteenth-century Germany underwent social and economic change, which included an increase in urbanization and slums. Marx witnessed the working class living in poverty while a minority of capitalists lived in material comfort and often at the former’s expense. Major developments in industrialization led to the devaluation of labor and workers. Marx’s wanted to explain why this was the case and this laid the groundwork for his political theories. He stated that in his time there were new classes, new conditions of oppression, and new forms of struggle present. It was an era he referred to as the “epoch of the bourgeois” which was unique in how it simplified class antagonisms: society was split into two classes in opposition to each other, the bourgeois and the proletariat.

During the industrial revolution (1750-1850) the bourgeois had become the economic ruling class who owned the means of production such as capital and land. They also controlled the means of coercion such as the armed forces, legal system, police, and prison system. The bourgeois owned all the products created by the proletarians. The goal was to preserve and produce capital to ensure the perpetuation of their economic supremacy.

The proletarians were the class of laborers who looked for employment from bourgeoisie capitalists. They were from the “lower strata” of the middle class and of the lowest “stratum of our present society”. They were the slaves of the bourgeoisie.

The advancement of industry and machinery made their jobs and livelihood uncertain as new methods of production rendered their skills worthless. In this respect, they were mere commodities to the bourgeoisie and they lacked any sense of individuality. According to Marx, they were cogs in the machine, “masses of laborers, crowded into the factory, are organized like soldiers” beneath the command of a hierarchy.

Marx traced the development of the bourgeois and believed them to be “the product of a long course of development, of a series of revolutions in the modes of production and of exchange”. Bourgeois growth was largely a result of the change in social systems. As the feudal system died in the face of a new growing market, a new manufacturing system took over through the middle class. Markets grew in response to an ever-increasing demand, which propelled an industrial contributing to “industrial millionaires, the leaders of the whole industrial armies, the modern bourgeois”. This market also gave rise to the development of commerce, navigation, and communication, which all allowed the bourgeoisie to extend themselves, increase capital, and oppress the lower class.

The impact of the burgeoning bourgeois class was far-reaching. The rapid improvement of instruments of production through means of communication enabled the bourgeoisie to draw “the most barbarian nations into civilization”. They compelled other nations to adopt the bourgeois mode of production and to become bourgeoisie themselves. Through the creation of cities, the bourgeoisie also increased the urban population and centralized the means of production, through which they had successfully given property to a minority of people. Marx also claimed that the bourgeois could push themselves to a place of overdevelopment by developing too much civilization, industry, commerce, and means of subsistence. Overdevelopment could cause devastation and destruction that lead society into a state of “momentary barbarism”. Disorder could also come about if the bourgeois class grew too small to control the wealth they created.

Marx was critical of the bourgeoisie and condemned them. Although he acknowledged that through them much wealth had been created, he could not credit them for their “naked, shameless, direct, brutal” exploitation of the proletariat. The creation of the proletariat’s wealth had its origin in the exploitation of workers.

Marx  lead to conflict between the two classes and to violent revolution. Contest, he writes, “is carried on by individual labourers, then by the workpeople of a factory, then by the operative of one trade, in one locality, against the individual bourgeois who directly exploits them”.

Before conflict would emerge, the power of the proletariat would grow. The more industry developed, the more workers would be needed and this would lead to a concentration of “their masses” who would form trade unions in opposition to the bourgeoisie. The result would be conflict, riots, and open revolution as the proletarians attempt to overthrow the ruling class. The destruction of machinery and factories would follow and sometimes the proletarians would taste victory but only for a temporary period of time.



Let me know your thoughts!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s