Marxism in Contemporary Sociology Research Paper

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Marxism has a presence in contemporary sociology in three principle forms: assimilating Marxism, using Marxism, and building Marxism. The first of these is closely identified with the way Marxism is incorporated into mainstream sociology, the second with Marxist sociology, and the third with what might be called sociological Marxism.

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1. Assimilating Marxism

Most sociologists, even those relatively unsympathetic to the theoretical and political agenda of Marxism, recognize that the Marxist tradition has been a source of interesting and suggestive ideas for sociology, one of the important sources of the ‘sociological imagination.’ Courses in sociological theory typically include respectful discussions of Marx, Weber, and Durkheim as ‘founding fathers’ of central theoretical currents in the history of sociology. Durkheim is identified with norms and problems of social integration, Weber with rationalization and the cultural sociology of meaningful action, and Marx with class and conflict. Studies of politics and the state routinely borrow from the Marxist tradition a concern with business influence, economic constraints on state action, and the class bases of political parties and political mobilization (e.g., Lipset 1960). Discussions of work frequently talk about the labor process, the problem of extracting effort from workers and the impact of technology on skills. Discussions of social change talk about contradictions (e.g., Bell 1976,) and, perhaps above all, discussions of social conflict are influenced by the core Marxist idea that conflicts are generated by structurally based social cleavages, not simply subjective identities (e.g., Bourdieu 1984). In these and many other ways, themes integral to the Marxist tradition are imported into the mainstream of sociological scholarship, frequently losing any explicit link to their Marxist pedigree in the process.

2. Using Marxism

Marxist sociology represents a more self-conscious, more ambitious use of Marxist ideas in sociology. Here the idea is to take the conceptual framework elaborated within the Marxist tradition—mode of production, exploitation, the labor process, class structure, class struggle, class consciousness, the state, ideology, revolution, and so on—and to use these concepts to understand a wide array of sociological problems. The goal is not for Marxist concepts to lose their identity by being absorbed into the mainstream, but to challenge the mainstream with an alternative set of explanations and predictions. In studies of state policy formation, the claim is not just that there may be business influence and economic constraints on state policies, but that class power sets fundamental limits on the range of possibilities of state action (e.g., Miliband 1969, Offe 1984). In studies of the labor process and technology, the claim is not just that employers face a problem of gaining cooperation from workers and getting them to perform with adequate effort, but that the antagonism of interests between workers and employers is a fundamental property of work organization in capitalist economies (e.g., Braverman 1974). In studies of inequality the claim is not just that class is one of the salient dimensions of social inequality in industrial societies, but that class relations structure fundamental features of the system of inequality (e.g., Wright 1985).

3. Building Marxism

The most ambitious articulation of Marxism and sociology goes beyond simply explicitly deploying Marxist categories to tackle a range of sociological problems. Here the goal is to build Marxism itself, to contribute to its development as a coherent theoretical structure by understanding its shortcomings and reconstructing its arguments. (Examples include Althusser 1970, Cohen 1978. An earlier example with considerable influence in contemporary discussions is Gramsci 1971). Building Marxism is important for the other two articulations of Marxism and sociology: It is only in continually building Marxism that it can generate new insights to be appropriated piecemeal into the mainstream, and new arguments to be used by Marxist sociologists in their engagement with sociology.

To understand the tasks involved in building Marxism, it is necessary to briefly lay out the core substantive arguments of the Marxist tradition of social theory. These arguments fall under three theoretical clusters: (a) a theory of the trajectory and destiny of capitalism, (b) a theory of the contradictory reproduction of capitalism, and (c) a normative theory of socialism and communism. The first of these is the core of classical Marxism, the Marxism of Marx and Engels, and is closely identified with what is usually called ‘historical materialism.’ The second provides the basic ingredients of what might be called sociological Marxism. In the face of empirical and theoretical criticisms of historical materialism from within Marxism, sociological Marxism has become increasingly central to Marxism as a whole. The third comprises the basis for the Marxist critique of capitalism and its emancipatory vision of alternatives.

3.1 The Theory of the Trajectory and Destiny of Capitalism

The traditional Marxist theory of the trajectory and destiny of capitalism was grounded in three fundamental theses.

3.1.1 Thesis 1. The long-term nonsustainability of capitalism thesis.

In the long run capitalism is an unsustainable social order. Capitalism does not have an indefinite future. Its internal dynamics (‘laws of motion’) are mainly generated by three interacting forces: the exploitation of workers by capitalists, the competition among capitalists within ever-expanding markets, and the development of the forces of production. These dynamics of capitalism are deeply contradictory and, it is predicted, will eventually destroy the conditions of capitalism’s reproducibility. This means that capitalism is not merely characterized by episodes of crisis and decay, but that these episodes have an inherent tendency to intensify over time in ways which make the survival of capitalism increasingly problematic (Marx 1967).

3.1.2 Thesis 2. The intensification of anticapitalist class struggle thesis.

As the sustainability of capitalism declines (thesis 1), the class forces arrayed against capitalism increase in numbers and capacity to challenge capitalism. Eventually the social forces arrayed against capitalism will be sufficiently strong and capitalism itself sufficiently weak that capitalism can be overthrown (Marx and Engels 1992, Lukacs 1971).

3.1.3 Thesis 3. The natural transition to socialism thesis.

Given the ultimate nonsustainability of capitalism (thesis 1), and the interests and capacities of the social actors arrayed against capitalism, in the aftermath of the destruction of capitalism through intensified class struggle (thesis 2), socialism is its most likely successor (or, in an even stronger version of the thesis, its inevitable successor). Partially this is because capitalism itself creates some of the institutional groundwork for socialism (concentration of ownership, increased productivity, etc.), but mainly socialism emerges in the aftermath of capitalism’s demise because the working class would gain tremendously from socialism and it has the power to create it. Given the interests and capacities of the relevant social actors, socialism would be invented through a process of pragmatic, creative, collective experimentalism when it became an ‘historical necessity’ (Engels 1945).This is an elegant social theory, enormously attractive to people committed to the moral and political agenda of an egalitarian, democratic, socialist future. Since struggles for social change are always arduous affairs, particularly if one aspires to fundamental transformations of social structures, having the confidence that the ‘forces of history’ are on one’s side and that eventually the system against which one is fighting will be unsustainable, provides enormous encouragement. The belief in the truth of this classical theory, arguably, helped to sustain communist struggles in the face of such overwhelming obstacles.

Unfortunately, the empirical evidence for the central theses of the theory of the dynamics and destiny of capitalism are quite weak, and a number of the theoretical foundations for the theses flawed. As a result, most Marxist scholars either explicitly abandon historical materialism or ignore it. Their work, therefore, tends to revolve mainly around the second pillar of the Marxist tradition: the theory of contradictory reproduction.

3.2 The Theory of the Contradictory Reproduction of Capitalism and its Class Relations

The Marxist theory of the contradictory reproduction of capitalism and capitalist class relations is also based on three fundamental theses.

3.2.1 Thesis 1. The social reproduction of class relations thesis.

By virtue of their exploitative character, class structures are inherently unstable forms of social relations and require active institutional arrangements for their reproduction. Where class relations exist, therefore, it is predicted that various forms of political and ideological institutions will develop to defend and reproduce them. In capitalism this problem of social reproduction of class relations is further complicated by instabilities generated by capitalist competition and uneven development.

3.2.2 Thesis 2. The contradictions of capitalism thesis.

The institutional solutions to the problems of social reproduction of capitalist class relations at any point in time have a systematic tendency to erode and become less functional over time. This is so for two principle reasons: First, capitalist development generates changes in technology, the labor process, class structure, markets, and other aspects of capitalist relations, and these changes continually pose new problems of social reproduction. In general, earlier institutional solutions will cease to be optimal under such changed conditions. Second, class actors adapt their strategies in order to take advantages of weaknesses in existing institutional arrangements. Over time, these adaptive strategies tend to erode the ability of institutions of social reproduction to regulate and contain class struggles effectively.

3.2.3 Thesis 3. Institutional crisis and renovation thesis.

Because of the continual need for institutions of social reproduction (thesis 1) and the tendency for the reproductive capacity of given institutional arrangements to erode over time (thesis 2), institutions of social reproduction in capitalist societies will tend to be periodically renovated. The typical circumstance for such renovation will be institutional crisis—a situation in which organized social actors, particularly class actors, come to experience the institutional supports as unsatisfactory, often because they cease to be able to contain class conflicts within tolerable limits. There is no necessary implication here that the new institutional solutions will be optimal or that capitalism will collapse in the face of suboptimal arrangements. What is claimed is that capitalist development will be marked by a sequence of institutional renovation episodes in response to the contradictions in the reproduction of capitalist relations.

Most of the empirical research and theoretical development done by contemporary scholars engaged in building Marxism has in one way or another revolved around these three theses. Thus Marxist theories of advanced capitalism have focused on questions of how the state regulates relations among capitalists and the relations between capital and labor (e.g., Aglietta 1979). The state also organizes class struggles so that they do not threaten capitalism. It does this through various concessions to the working class such as factory legislation, minimum wages, unemployment compensation, and so forth (e.g., Przeworski 1985). Alternatively, the state disorganizes the working class, for example, through the legal order which constitutes individual citizens (e.g., Poulantzas 1973) or, in some times and places, by promoting racial divisions through discriminatory access to jobs. Sociological Marxism investigates the ways in which consent to capitalism is both organized and potentially challenged within production (Burawoy 1985) as well as within the institutions of civil society—from schools to churches, from trade unions to political parties (e.g., Bowles and Gintis 1976). In these and other ways, the problem of understanding the contradictory reproduction and transformation of capitalist class relations and institutions constitutes the central agenda of sociological Marxism.

3.3 The Normative Theory of Marxism

If one believes the traditional Marxist theory of the dynamics and destiny of capitalism, then there is little need for an elaborate normative theory of the alternatives to capitalism. The problem of socialism can be left to the pragmatic ingenuity of people in the future. It is for this reason that Marxists traditionally have believed an elaborate positive normative theory was unnecessary. The normative dimension of Marxism has thus primarily taken the form of the critique of capitalism as a social order characterized by alienation, exploitation, fetishism, mystification, degradation, immiseration, the anarchy of the market, and so on. The transcendence of capitalism by socialism and, eventually, communism, was then posited as the simple negation of these features, an implicit and undefended theoretical utopia which simply eliminated all the moral deficits of capitalism: a society without alienation, exploitation, fetishism, and the rest.

Once one abandons the optimistic predictions of historical materialism, however, there is no longer a theoretical grounding for bracketing the normative issues. The twentieth century witnessed several historical experiments of trying to build socialism in the aftermath of anticapitalist revolutions without a coherent normative model of socialist institutions. If we have learned anything from the history of revolutionary struggles against capitalism, it is that anticapitalism is an insufficient basis on which to construct a feasible, emancipatory socialist alternative. In addition to a sociological Marxism which explores the contradictory reproduction of class relations in capitalism, therefore, Marxism requires a normative theory that illuminates the egalitarian and communitarian ideals of the emancipatory project, the dilemmas and contradictions in the actual historical attempts at creating socialism, and the design principles of feasible institutions for realizing those emancipatory ideals in the future. The further development of this normative theory is one of the essential tasks for building Marxism in the twenty-first century.


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