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In this lesson, we will discuss the difference between socialism and capitalism, how Karl Marx believed that social class dictated one’s social life and who were the bourgeoisie and proletariat.

Karl Marx: Becoming a Socialist

In our previous lecture, we learned how Karl Marx’s ideas are studied and used by philosophers, historians, economists, sociologists and political scientists. Marx’s ideas were seen as so radical that he was perceived as an inspiration to revolutionists and a threat by leaders of state governments.

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Karl Marx’s work has had an everlasting impact on the arena of sociology in that his views opened the door to the study of how one’s social class has a direct influence on one’s life experiences and life chances. His work also opened the door for many differing perspectives on the issue of the wealthy and the poor in society.While in Paris from 1843 to 1845, Marx was able to meet with other radical thinkers and revolutionists, for Paris had become a center for all things social, political and artistic. Here, Marx was able to study socialist theories that were not available to him in Germany.It was during this time that Marx met and became lifelong friends with Friedrich Engels and was immersed into the socialist world, focusing on the conditions of the working class.

For the first time, Marx was beginning to understand the conditions and misery of the working-class people.He wrote many editorials regarding such and, once again, was expelled from his country – but this time by the French government. Marx would spend much of his life expelled from Germany and other countries as a result of his radical (for the times) thinking.

Karl Marx was expelled from Germany and a number of other countries for his radical ideas
social class. His main focus on social class was that one’s social class dictated one’s social life.Basically, Marx meant that if one is in the upper class, life was one of leisure and abundance, while those in the lower class lived lives of hardship and poverty.According to Marx, there was one social element that would determine where one fit in the social class hierarchy: that of who controls the means of production, meaning who owned the resources necessary to produce what people needed to survive.The wealthy would be the individuals who owned the land and factories. The wealthy would then control all elements of society – including the livelihoods of the lower, working class.

The lower, working class would work for hourly wages on the land or in the factories.Marx wanted to better understand how so many people could be in poverty in a world where there was an abundance of wealth. His answer was simple: capitalism.

According to sociologist John Macionis, the wealthy and the working poor ”have opposing interests and are separated by a vast gulf of wealth and power, making class conflict inevitable.”

Alienation and Revolution

In history, those members of the aristocracy and the church owned the means of production, and the peasants worked for the aristocracy. With the onset of the Industrial Revolution, Marx thought that he would see more of the working poor rise financially and socially. However, this did not materialize.

In the industrial society, the aristocracy was replaced by the capitalists (also known as the bourgeoisie). These were the people who owned businesses with the goal of earning a profit, and the working class was replaced by the proletariat, the people who labored for wages.Marx believed that this system was inherently unfair.

Under capitalism, Marx believed that the workers would become poorer and poorer and experience alienation. Alienation is seen as the workers becoming more distanced from, or isolated from, their work, resulting in a feeling of powerlessness.To replace this alienation and extreme social class structure, Marx believed that capitalism had to end and be replaced by a socialist system that would make all equal and have all people’s needs met.In his work with Fredrick Engels, The Communist Manifesto, Marx stated, ”The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains.

They have a world to win.” Thus, Marx had called for a workers’ revolution where the proletarians would rise up against the bourgeoisie, overthrowing capitalism. To Marx’s despair, though, such revolutions occurred in various countries such as Russia and China, but did not occur in the more industrialized nations of the time, like Britain and Germany.

Capitalism and Socialism

To get a better understanding of Karl Marx’s disdain for capitalism and how he felt that the answer to social inequality was socialism, let’s look at the two economic systems in a bit more detail.

Capitalism and socialism are different types of economic systems that exist and are used by many countries. The United States is considered a capitalist country, while Denmark is considered a socialist country. While both the United States and Denmark have a democratic government, they differ in their economic systems.Capitalism is an economic system where the means of production is owned by private individuals. In this system, the economy and the use of resources are controlled by individual business owners and private companies. A capitalist system is also known as free market enterprise.The main focus of capitalism is profit – businesses exist to make money.

When one owns a company or manages a company, the goal is to earn a profit or to increase the price of stock in the business firm. Essentially, the purpose of capitalism is the accumulation of as much wealth for the owners as possible.Under capitalism, government plays a very minor role – or should, at least. Capitalism is based off of the idea of laissez-faire, which is French for ‘let them do.’ The government’s role in capitalism is to make certain that the playing field for all businesses is even by enforcing laws and regulations.

The pros of capitalism are that capitalism allows individuals the opportunity to increase their personal financial growth. This increase in wealth is the reward for individual hard work and dedication in the capitalist system.Some of the cons of capitalism are that since the focus of capitalism is increased wealth, the big players in such a system (the owners or the shareholders) are usually the ones who profit, while the workers do not. Fierce competition sometimes allows only those large corporations to profit and get bigger – over that of the small business owner.

Many are critical of capitalism for this reason, stating that it is a system set up to only make the rich even richer.Socialism is an economic system that focuses on the betterment of the whole, rather than the advancement of the individual. It is a system in which the means of production are owned by a collective of people and by the state.

With this system, everyone works, but the rewards are then distributed to all people.

Under socialism, the means of production are owned by a collective of people and the state
Socialism Definition

Under the socialist system, the belief is that if something is good for one, then it is good for all. Here, everyone works for the betterment of themselves and the group as a whole. Within this system, it is the government who determines how the reward and wealth is spread out among the people.

In socialism, a free-market system does not exist, for the government will be the one providing for all the people.Socialism pushes for the equal distribution of wealth to all, rather than just a few. Communism is an extreme example of socialism, where the ideology is one of a classless social order with government in control of all resources and means of production. Marx even stated that socialism is just the transition phase on the road to communism.Some of the pros of socialism are that it promotes equality by distributing all things to all people; thus, all needs are being met and no one person has more or less than another. The focus of socialism is the greater good for all.

The cons of socialism are that since government is providing all resources, taxes are generally higher in a socialist system. Higher income earners may feel that their work is being punished by these higher taxes. Extreme socialism may lead to communism.

Lesson Summary

Karl Marx was a German economist whose ideas and works generated much controversy. He is known to have inspired revolutionists and has been considered a threat to national governments. Marx was one of the few social scientists whose main focus of his work was on social class. He believed that one’s social class determined one’s social lifestyle.During his time, Marx became increasingly involved in the plight of the working poor. He felt that the wealthy (the bourgeoisie) held the control of resources and continued to accumulate wealth off of the labors of the poor working class (the proletariat).

Marx believed that the proletarians would evidently feel alienated from their work (from not being allowed control of their work) and would eventually revolt against the wealthy to demand a more equal and just society. Marx felt that the cause of such inequality in wealth and lifestyle was the result of capitalism and that to reach a more equal society, capitalism should be replaced with socialism.

Learning Outcome

At the end of this lesson, you should have the ability to:

  • Explain how Karl Marx’s work impacted sociology
  • Analyze Marx’s socialist theory
  • Discuss Marx’s criticism of capitalism
  • Differentiate between capitalism and socialism

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