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Karl Marx and Max Weber are without question the two most influential sociologists to have emerged in the 19th century. Marx’s theories are seen as the foundation of modern communism, and he himself is seen as a revolutionist. Marx’s work has been very influential and has stood as an inspiration for social change. Max Weber, writing a generation later, emerged as a giant in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century German sociology and social theory. Whereas Marx anticipated the inevitability of revolutionary change, Weber offered a more staid and pessimistic vision.
Society is seen as divided into four groups, the upper class, middle class, working class and lower class. This is known as the class system (http://www.gpwu.ac.jp/~biddle/the_class_sysytem.htm). The upper class tend to consist of people with inherited wealth and includes some of the oldest families, with many of them being titled aristocrats. The upper classes are defined by their title, but also by their education and by their pastimes
(http://www.en.articlesgratuits.com/social-stratification-in-great-britain-id3024.php). The middle class are the majority of society today. They include high skilled craftsmen, lower and middle management and business people. The working class consists of farmers and factory workers. The lower class consists of people with a low income, low level of education and high unemployment rates. There are two significant sociologists in the discussion about social class, Karl Marx and Max Weber.
Karl Marx was one of the first writers to analyse class differences. His understanding of class was someone’s relationship to the means of production. He saw class as being a phenomenon of any society, where ownership of wealth and the means of production (M.O.P) in the capitalist system, dominated the wage earners or proletariat. Marx considered that there were two prominent classes- the owners of the means of production and the workers. Marx talked mainly about the two great classes- owners and workers, but he was aware of a third class, which he called petit bourgeoisie (http://copland.udel.edu/~cmarks/What%20is%20social%20class.htm). This was the middle class which were owners of small businesses. Marx argued that the only thing that the workers owned was their ability to work (http://copland.udel.edu/~cmarks/What%20is%20social%20class.htm), what he called ‘labour power’. The owners had power over workers as they paid the worker’s wages and could determine what wage they received, and exploited them. As a result, there is a basic conflict of interest between the two classes.
The worker becomes all the poorer the more wealth he produces, the more his production increases in power and range. The worker becomes an ever cheaper commodity the more commodities he creates. With the increasing value of the world of things proceeds in direct proportion to the devaluation of the world of men. Labour produces not only commodities; it produces itself and the and the worker as a commodity- and does so in the proportion in which it produces commodities generally.
(Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts (1844) cited in http://www.historyguide.org/intellect/marx.html).
Marx believed all societies are class societies with people set against each other by their differing relationship to the means of production. He felt that the lack of powers of workers was the source of exploitation and the basis of class conflict (http://copland.udel.edu/~cmarks/What%20is%20social%20class.htm). Marx argued that the basic contradictions contained in a capitalist economic system would lead to its eventual destruction. The proletariat would overthrow the bourgeoisie and seize the means of production, the source of power. Property would be communally owned and, all members of society would now share the same relationship to the means of production, bringing an end to the exploitation and as a result a classless society would emerge.
In Capital (1867/1967), for example, Marx talked about the capitalists as werewolves and vampires who suck the blood out of the workers, and he was very sympathetic to the plight of the prolectariat.
(Ritzer, Sociological Theory, 4th edition, Singapore, 1996, p 29).
Marx argued that the class struggle was the driving force of social change. Marx also talked about class consciousness. Class consciousness as occurs when false consciousness has been replaced by a full awareness of the true situation, by a realization of the nature of exploitation, like the workers realising they are being used. When owners convinced workers that their situations were compatible, this Marx called false consciousness. Marx noted a difference between a ‘class in itself’ and a ‘class for itself’. He believed a class in itself is a social group whose members share the same relationship to the means of production. A class for itself is a social group where its members have class consciousness and class solidarity. Class solidarity, which he believed was when members of a class develop a common identity and recognise their shared interests and unite. Marx believed that certain factors in the development of a capitalist economy would accelerate its loss of position (Macionis, Plummer, Sociology: A Global Introduction, 2005, 3rd edition, p. 202-206). These factors would end in the polarization of the two main classes. The gap between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie will become greater and the difference between these two groups will become even more extreme. Marx argued in the course of a working day, workers produce more than is actually needed by employers to repay the cost of hiring them. This surplus value is the source of profit, which capitalists are able to put to their own use (Giddens and Griffiths, Sociology, 5th Edition, p.301). Marx made the essential point that class was primarily based upon economic circumstances.
Max Weber didn’t agree with Marx’s view that power derived only from economic relations and the relationship to private property of the MOP. The scope of Weber’s analysis ranges more widely than that of Marx; the origins of capitalism, the development of capitalism, the nature of a future society, and concepts and approaches that Marx downplayed- religion, ideas, values, meaning, and social action (http://uregina.ca/~gingrich/o902.htm). Weber also talked about power, class, status and party, as he was aware of its value. By class Weber is referring to ones participation in the market either by capital, skill or education. It refers to the unequal distribution of economic rewards. By status, Weber argues that groups form because their members share a similar status situation, like priests and monarchy. Unlike classes, members of status groups are aware of their common status situation. By party Weber means a group of people who commit to some practical goal or activity. He believed parties were groups which are specifically concerned with influencing policies and making decisions in the interests of their members. These groups include trade unions and professional associations (Macionis, Plummer, Sociology: A Global Introduction, 2005, third Edition, p 206).
Weber disagreed with Marx on a number of his theories. Weber saw no evidence to support the theory of the polarization of classes. Although he did see some decline in the numbers of the petty bourgeoisie due to competition from large companies, he argued that they enter white-collar or skilled manual trades rather than being depressed into the ranks of unskilled manual workers. Weber argued that the middle class increases rather than declines as capitalism develops. Therefore Weber saw a diversification of classes and an expansion of the white-collar middle class, rather than polarization as Marx did. Weber also disagreed with Marx on the idea of the proletarian revolution. Weber argued that people with similar class situations would not just develop a common identity and try to overthrow the bourgeoisie and seize the means of production. He believed that workers who were dissatisfied with their class situation would respond in different ways. Weber’s theories on social stratification are significant, because they show that other factors of social stratification and not just class, affect people’s lives (Giddens and Griffiths, Sociology, 5th Edition, p.302-303).
Max Weber and Karl Marx had a difference of opinion over what was the driving force behind changes in society. But they both agreed that class is a function of economic participation and does not see capitalism as an idealistic form of society. Like Marx, Weber saw class in economic terms, arguing that classes develop in market economies in which individuals compete for economic gain. He defined a class as a group of individuals who share a similar position in a market economy and receive similar economic rewards. This Weber called is market situation.
Marx and Weber argued these theories during the 19th century. Much of Marx’s predictions have been wrong. Capitalist societies did not become increasingly polarised between labour and capital, instead the middle class grew larger and larger and the importance of manual labour steadily declined.
Only a quarter of a century ago, some 40 per cent of the working population was in blue-collar work. Now, in the UK, only about 18 per cent is, and this proportion is still dropping. Moreover, the conditions under which working-class people are living, and the styles of live they are following, are altering.
Giddens and Griffiths, Sociology, 5th Edition, p.315.
Some critics today question the theoretical and historical validity of ‘class’ as an analytic construct or as a political actor. In this line, some question Marx’s reliance on 19th century notions that linked science with the idea of ‘progress’. Many observe that capitalism has changed much since Marx’s time and that class differences and relationships are much more complex.
Although Marx’s prediction of an imminent collapse of the capitalist system and the proletarian revolution has not materialised, some of the most forceful passages in Marx book the Communist Manifesto actually refer to the greatest achievements of the bourgeoisie class and to complete changes in the ways human history has been made after its ascendance to power. Marx can then be credited to be one of the first thinkers to recognise the fact that the capitalist system represented the biggest breakthrough in human history. Marx predicted that as capitalism developed, a polarization of classes would take place between the oppressed and exploited proletariat on the one hand, and the exploiters on the other. Such class polarization has not occurred (Carter and Stokes, Democratic Theory Today: Challenges for the 21st Century, 1st Edition, 2002, p.254).
In the last half of the 20th century, almost half of the people in the world lived in countries governed by principles based on Marx’s work such as the Soviet Union and the countries of Eastern Europe.
Although it is true that many of Marx’s predictions about the course of the revolutionary movement were wrong, there is no doubt that he was a true genius.
Nowadays, in the 21st century, there is more focus on inequality and not so much class. Equality is the state of being equal or the same.
People are living in poverty if their income and resources (material, cultural and social) are so inadequate as to preclude them from having a standard of living which is regarded as acceptable by Irish society generally. As a result of inadequate income and resources people may be excluded and marginalised from participating in activities which are considered the norm for other people in society
National Anti-Poverty Strategy, http://www.socialinclusion.ie/poverty.html
Modern society believes everyone should be given an equal chance to succeed in life, and stresses equal opportunities. But we all know not everybody is treated equally in reality. Marx’s view of class was about someone’s relationship to the means of production, that isn’t the case anymore. There is cultural, material as well as social inequality in Ireland today. A report published in 2002, revealed Ireland to be one of the richest countries but also one of the most unequal. Social researcher Brian Harvey found that the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees was inadequate and that there were difficulties for poor people getting fast access to justice (http://www.rte.ie/news/2002/0404/report.html). In another report released in 2008, there was a study on the health, health behaviour and well being among children from the travelling community, immigrant children, children with disabilities and children from disadvantaged schools in comparison to other children. The findings showed that there were inequalities in health among children from these groupings and the other children, so it proves that children just aren’t being treated the same (http://www.nuigalway.ie/hbsc/documents/press_release__7th_oct.pdf). People look down their noses at the travelling community, most pubs and shops don’t even let them onto their premises. People look down at the travelling community as they see them as having no house, no job and see them as being lower class. We can see the difference in class when this happens.
Ireland went from being one of the poorest countries to being one of the richest and the majority of Irish society is now working class. It seems gender, disability, ethnicity, age, sexuality and religion are just some of the groups that are more likely to experience inequality in Ireland.
While both Marx and Weber were interested by the changes happening in society in the industrialization, Marx was looking for a revolution while Weber was exploring the factors as to why capitalism had come to pass.
Though many of Marx’s predictions are yet to materialize, there is no doubt that he was one of the most influential thinkers of the 19th century. Exploring how the capitalist economic system generates conflict between classes, Marx’s analysis of social stratification has had enormous influence on sociological thinking in recent decades. Weber’s writing on stratification is significant because it shows other factors of stratification other than class that strongly influences people’s lives. Weber discussed class, status and party as important separate aspects of social stratification thus providing a more comprehensive analysis than that of Marx. Thanks to Marx and Weber we have a better understanding of social class.
• Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts (1844) cited in http://www.historyguide.org/intellect/marx.html
• Ritzer, Sociological Theory, 4th edition, Singapore, 1996
• Macionis, Plummer, Sociology: A Global Introduction, 2005, 3rd edition
• Giddens and Griffiths, Sociology, 5th Edition
• Carter and Stokes, Democratic Theory Today: Challenges for the 21st Century, 1st Edition, 2002
• Albrow, Sociology; The Basics, 1999, London
• Gerth and Mills, From Max Weber Essays in Sociology, 2009, Oxon
• Ballantine, The Sociology of Education “A Systematic Analysis”, Fifth Edition, New Jersey, 2001
• Bellamy and Ross, A Textual Introduction to Social and Political Theory, Manchester, 1996
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