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Karl Marx’s analysis of 19th century Capitalism

Karl Marx to arrive at his distinctive concepts, theories and explanations had to make several assumptions about the nature of man and of the world.

  1. The world including the social world is better characterized by flux and change rather than by stability and the permanence of phenomena.
  2. In the social world as in the world of nature, change is not random but orderly in that uniformities and regularities can be observed and therefore scientific findings can be made about them.
  3. In the social world the key to this pattern of change can be found in men’s relationships in the economic order, the world of work. Subsistence, the need to make a living must be achieved in all societies. How subsistence is achieved crucially affects the whole structure of any society.
  4. Society can be viewed as an inter-related system of parts with the economy very much shaping the other parts.
  5. Men within a society are shaped in both attitudes and behavior by its social institutions. Marx believed that underlaying all the various and different kinds of social men which are produced by different types of society – primitive, ancient, feudal, oriental, and capitalist is a basic and essential human nature. For Marx, man is essentially rational, intelligent, and sensitive but these qualities can be warped and diverted into their opposites if the social arrangements of a society are so badly designed as to allow some men to pursue their own interests to the detriment of others. Very few men can escape their historical and social circumstances and study their own society with the detachment and dispassion required of science. Marx considered himself to be such a man.
  6. Marx’s basic philosophical view of the nature of man and his relationship with the natural world is generally called historical materialism. Historical materialism incorporates most of the preceding points but will be restated here in view of its crucial importance of Marx’s sociological work.

With historical materialism Marx tries to create a philosophical viewpoint which can produce a compromise between two opposite philosophical views on the nature of reality: idealism and materialism. Idealism at its extreme suggests that the world exists in men’s minds; the world can be changed by changed thinking. Materialism suggests that the world out there, the world of material or physical objects, shapes the thoughts and ideas of men. Marx decries both approaches. Ideas do not work in the vacuum or produced in the vacuum. Ideas are important to social life and behavior but not any ideas. Ideas must have a sufficient bearing on existing social reality in that historical context to inspire enough people to recognize their significance and relevance so that people are moved to act. Only by acting can ideas serve to transform social practices. In this way Marx attacks idealism. As for materialism he argues that the material world is not simply out there in a timeless and unchanging fashion. It will be continually shaped and reshaped by men acting on their ideas and perceptions and thereby changing it. It is Karl Marx’s view, as a historical materialist, men’s ideas and men’s consciousness shape the social and material world if 

  • Men act on those ideas
  • They realize that the material features of a particular society in a particular historical period must set limits on the extent to which ideas even when backed by social action can significantly reshape the nature of society.

Karl Marx viewed capitalism as a social system which was characterized by

  • The naked exploitation of many people by a few people.
  • Contradictions, strains, and tensions within the system. These contradictions are created by the system.
  • The drastic and violent change of the system.