Marxism and Contemporary Society

Russell Haggar

Site Owner

Marxism and Contemporary Capitalist Societies

Page last edited:29/08/2019

For Gramsci and Neo-Marxism : An Introduction October 2017 – Click Here 

For an introductory video on Marx and Marxism: an ideal starting point. June 2015 – Click Here

For An Introduction to Marxism which contains several criticisms of Marxist theories, Marxist defences against such criticisms  and useful links related to the continued relevance of Marxism – Click Here 

For Marxism and Revolution Document – Click Here 

For the December 2013 edition of Discover Society which contains very useful information on Wealth and Class including summary information on Ralph Miliband’s The State In Capitalist Society …on which see also below – Click Here

For a new video lecture by David Harvey on the contemporary relevance of Marxism – Click Here

For a review of Erik Olin Wright’s book “How to be an anti-capitalist in the 21st Century – Click Here

For Professor Bob Jessop’s audio lecture series [with slides] on Antonio Gramsci – Click Here

 Is Marx still relevant? [Jonathan Sperber 2013] - Click here 

See also new links added at the end of this document

Possible Weaknesses of Marxist Theory

Marx predicted revolution in the capitalist West but in the event revolutions occurred in Russia , China and elsewhere. These societies quickly came to be dominated by the leaders of Communist parties. The poor gained little economically and their political liberties were, if anything, reduced.

The “Fall of Communism” in the USSR and Eastern Europe showed the defects of these regimes. For example, they could not generate the high living standards available in the West. Critics claim that we have nothing to learn from them, except that such experiments should be avoided.

Critics of Marxism have argued that capitalist societies have developed in the C20th in ways not predicted by Marx. For example;

Marx predicted increasing unemployment. In fact since the 2nd World War, there have been prolonged phases of near full employment.

Marx predicted increased poverty. In fact absolute poverty in Western capitalist societies has been much reduced.

Also the poor are protected by the institutions of the Welfare State which was in its infancy while Marx was alive.

It was the case that for much of the C19th, the UK political system operated mainly in the interests of rich landowners and industrialists. These were the economically dominant Bourgeoisie; they were also a politically dominant “Ruling Class”.

However, nowadays we have universal adult suffrage, occasional Labour Governments, large trade unions and pressure groups of all kinds so that working class people are represented more effectively at the political level. Politics is not now dominated by a “Ruling Class”. Models of Democratic Pluralism are more useful in describing the distribution of power in capitalist societies.

Because of this it has been possible to reform the capitalist system in such a way that revolution is now unnecessary. Capitalism may have developed into Post- capitalism such that Marx has become irrelevant.

As a result of such reforms we now have:

A comprehensive Welfare State as has been mentioned;

Economic policies which result in rising living standards;

A more equal distribution of income and wealth than was the case in the C19th.

Some inequality remains but this can be justified in terms of the so-called Functionalist Theory of Social Stratification in which it is claimed that social inequality is inevitable and beneficial in various ways.

In any case there is now much more equality of opportunity such that everyone has a better chance of rising in the class structure,

Marx argued that the division of labour under capitalism produced Alienation. This is equally likely to occur in Socialist societies.

Marx’s analysis of the capitalist class structure cannot be applied very effectively to the late C20th and early C21st. To discuss this it is necessary to be familiar with the theories of Max Weber, among other things.

In addition, a Managerial Revolution is said to have occurred whereby large firms are no longer controlled by major shareholders but by senior managers. Therefore the economic power of the capitalist class is said to have been reduced, although they do remain rich.

Marx is said to have underestimated the importance of the growth of the middle class. In his later work he actually did recognise the growth of the middle class but had little to say about them.

Many members of the working class have experienced steadily rising living standards. They are content with their situation under capitalism. Some affluent manual workers may even have joined the middle class—the so-called embourgeoisement theory.

Divisions within social classes are more important than suggested by Marx as is the distinction between class and status.

For some manual workers the increased complexity of their work has reduced “Alienation“. They now find their work more interesting. In any case there will always be some alienating work in any industrial society, socialist or capitalist.

There seems to be little evidence of the development of revolutionary class consciousness among the working class. According to some, postmodernists for example, class has become more or less an irrelevance in many people’s lives.

Arguments such as these may be used to explain why Marxist style revolutions have not occurred in advanced capitalist countries.

Modern Marxists and the Continuing Relevance of Marxism

Note that it is important especially to study the Neo-Marxist Theories of Antonio Gramsci. For a new document on this .June 2016 –Click Here 

However modern Marxists reject the above arguments and argue instead that the Marxist critique of capitalism is still relevant in the C21st . Thus modern Marxists and others have challenged all of the above theories of post-capitalism and continue to argue that despite theories of the managerial revolution, democratic pluralism significant changes in class structure that even nowadays that the rich continue to exercise massive economic and political power. Among the criticisms made by Marxists of post-capitalist theories are the following:

the ideas of the Managerial Revolution were inaccurate in that there would be no real change in business practices because of the similarities of class background (and, by implication) of attitudes and values of managers and owners, because managers often own large amounts of shares and because other company objectives presuppose profitability.

Also, nationalisation had not reduced the power of the capitalist class because generous compensation had been given, because the profitable sector of private industry had not been nationalised and because nationalised industries recruited managers from private industry who followed broadly similar business objectives. Nationalised industries might even subsidise private profit from time to time.

changes in the UK capitalist class structure had been far less significant than suggested by post-capitalist theorists:

it was recognised for example that any redistribution of wealth and income which had occurred was mainly between the rich and the comfortably off (often members of the same families), with little improvement in the relative position of the poor;

even if the skilled sections of the working class had become more affluent they remained significantly worse of than most members of the middle class and had not by the mid 1960s at least significantly changed their attitudes and values;

Abel-Smith and Townsend had demonstrated that poverty at least in a relative sense, had not been eliminated by the Welfare State which, in any case, according to Marxists and others operated as an important agency of social control;

Social class differences in educational achievement remained significant and the chances that working class people might be upwardly socially mobile into the upper class were far smaller than the chances that people born into the upper class would remain there;

Marxists argued that the theory of democratic pluralism provided a grossly inaccurate explanation of the distribution of political power.

By the late 1960s the most important Marxist analysis of the capitalist state was Ralph Miliband’s  study entitled “The State in Capitalist Society” in which he used the above arguments to criticise post capitalist theories before arguing that a modified Marxist theory of the state offered the best analysis of the indirect political power of the Bourgeoisie over the state even in th e1960s.

Miliband argued firstly that there was very clear evidence that a  recognisable Bourgeoisie with dominating economic power continued to exist: wealth and income were still unequally distributed; the theory of the managerial revolution overstated the economic power of managers and understated the continuing economic power of the property owning Bourgeoisie; members of the Bourgeoisie could pass their economic advantages to their children with little difficulty; members of the working class and especially its poorer sections were at a massive economic disadvantage relative to the members of the upper class.

Thus, MiIiband concluded, a dominant economic class continued to exist and to exercise economic power in the private sector. However, could MiIiband also demonstrate that this class exercised decisive power over the State; that it was, indirectly, a Ruling Class and that State activities served its interests often/usually at the expense of the rest of the population?

On this point, Miliband and other modern Marxists would not wish to argue that the power of capital is the only factor determining the direction of State activity but that it is by far the dominant factor and that working class organisations (the Labour Party and the Trade Unions) are engaged in “Imperfect Competition” with it .They may in certain circumstances gain important victories but these victories do not challenge the overall dominance of capital and may in fact, ultimately help to sustain it by sustaining what Marxists consider to be the myth of pluralist democracy.

The further elements of Miliband’s analysis may be outlined as follows.

Miliband follows conventional definitions of the State, seeing it as consisting of the institutions of central government, the administration or bureaucracy or Civil Service, parliamentary assemblies, the judiciary, the police, the military and local government. These institutions are, in turn, controlled by a number of State Elites, which, for a variety of reasons according to Miliband, will govern the State according to the interests of the dominant economic class i.e the Bourgeoisie.

In  Miliband’s analysis as outlined in The State in Capitalist Society, the political dominance of the Bourgeoisie or the dominant economic class is seen as operating through the following mechanisms;

1 The continuing direct role of businessmen in State institutions: a large proportion of Cabinet Ministers have been involved in business and business people have also played an important role in central banking, nationalised industries and such state planning agencies as have existed from time to time and they could be expected to bring a capitalistic bias to government decision-making. However, it is admitted that businessmen fill only a small minority of all state elite positions.

2 However, political, administrative and military elites continue to be drawn from the higher reaches of the middle and upper classes The path to these positions will often be via prestigious public schools and universities and it is assumed by Miliband that this pattern of recruitment results in a powerful value consensus as between different state elites and between them and the dominant economic class. Many members of state elites are part of the dominant economic class or at least, on the fringes of it. There will be a strong tendency for state elites to define the “national interest” in terms of the interests of the dominant economic class and to support policies favouring maintenance or at most marginal change to the capitalist status quo. Differences of opinion may exist on matters of detail but not on fundamentals. Also, where talented working class people are recruited to elite positions, they will recognise that success demands the rejection of any radical views they might have held and, in any case, this evidence of upward social mobility into elite positions, if it is not studied too carefully be used to sustain the-myth of equal opportunity.

Miliband also refers to the wealth of the Bourgeoisie as a factor influencing its political power. For example, business pressure groups are well-funded and, therefore, more likely to be effective; business contributions bolster the election campaigns of right wing political parties although pluralist studies appear to call into question the dominance of business pressure groups, critics of pluralism have argued that the power of capital should be seen more in structural and ideological terms which cannot be picked up by pluralist studies and Miliband accepts this line of argument.

4 Developing the idea that “The ideas of the Ruling Class are, in every age, the ruling ideas – the class which has the means of material production at its disposal has control at the same time over the means of mental production”, Miliband points to the dissemination of a dominant class ideology via capitalist socialisation processes which is accepted by most members of the State Elites and by much of the leadership of the Labour Party, especially, perhaps, under the leadership Tony Blair. Meanwhile, Miliband argues that many working class people either accept the dominant class ideology or accommodate fairly passively to it and so they are not susceptible to persuasion by radical left ideologies.

Miliband makes the point that political power is visible through its consequences. Data on the distribution of income and wealth show that theUKis a highly economically unequal society: for Miliband these levels of economic inequality are maintained only because the rich have the indirect political power to ensure that they are maintained.

This then is the Marxist Theory of the Capitalist State as outlined in the 1960s by Ralph Miliband. Using it we can see that modern Marxists can still make a case for the revolutionary abolition of capitalism or the ending of capitalism via processes of “revolutionary reformism”  although of course conservatives, liberals and evolutionary socialists would\ reject the Marxist argument.

Professor Erik Olin Wright and Models of the Capitalist Class Structure

For the website of Erik Olin Wright – Click Here and for a recent article by Erik Olin Wright – Click Here. Via these links you will find some of Erik  Olin Wright’s detailed contributions to the development of Neo-Marxist scholarship. Erik Olin Wright passed away in January 2019. [R.I.P.]. [Advanced Level Sociology students approaching the study of Marxism for the first time should begin with more introductory explanations of Marxist theories before consideration of Professor Wright’s work which is, however,   mentioned explicitly in the  Stratification and Differentiation option within the AQA syllabus although for examination purposes students should concentrate on Professor Wright’s models of the capitalist class structure which are mentioned in the main textbooks. For a little information on these models – Click Here

Additions: November 2013

You  may refer to several other documents on my site to find additional information on the contemporary relevance of Marxist theories.

For Marxism and “the” Family – Click Here 

For Marxism and Education – Click Here 

For Marxism and the Mass Media – Click Here 

For Marxism and the Class structure [This document repeats much of the above information on Ralph Miliband and the Capitalist State but also contains information on Poulantzas and the Capitalist State and some introductory information on Erik Olin Wright’s neo-Marxist accounts of the contemporary capitalist class structure.] – Click Here 

You might also like to investigate Marxist perspectives on the Welfare State, on Crime and Deviance and on the Sociology of Development.  I have not covered these topics but you should be able to find useful information with an internet search!

For a Marxist interpretation  of the causes of economic crisis.2008….? from Professor David Harvey – Click Here

For Thinking Allowed discussion of relationships between capitalism and development from Marxist David Harvey and critic of capitalism [but non-Marxist?] Ha Joon Chang – Click Here

In each case you should consider how the Marxist theories outlined in these documents may be criticised using competing sociological perspectives.