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Essay: Critically account for the continuing relevance of Marxist sociology

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  • Published: 21 September 2019*
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Critically account for the continuing relevance of Marxist sociology.
For many, the debate continues as to whether Marxist sociology is still relevant in today’s society. Introduced by Karl Marx, Marxism focuses on class inequality and the exploitation faced by the lower classes at the hands of the ruling class in a capitalist society. The work of Marx and Friedrich Engels is outlined in “The Communist Manifesto”, in the hopes of the working class bringing about revolutionary change to suppress their suffering. Critics argue that Marxism holds little relevance in the 21st century, as the ideas once outlined by Marx and Engels are no longer applicable to issues in a contemporary society.
The focal point of Marxist sociology lies behind the exploitation of the working class (proletariat) by the ruling class (bourgeoise). Marx and Engels theorize that the bourgeoisie seized ideological control over the proletariat through a disproportionate influence over society’s superstructure; to which Marx defined as:
“the ideologies that dominate a particular era… such things as “politics, laws, morality, religion etc.”
The acquisition of control over such dominant institutions in society, such as the media and the law, grants those in power to increase their wealth at the expense of those subordinate to them. This is reflected in today’s society through unfair wages and tax laws that benefit the ruling class. Inequality and class struggle is relevant to everything in today’s capitalist society.
“We see and feel the injustices of capitalism all around us… millions who live on the brink of starvation until then they die of it”
Those suffering at the hands of those in power succumb to their subordinate position through the delusion of what Marx refers to as a ‘false class consciousness”. Infatuation with money and material objects in the 21st century makes the working class’ inferior position sustainable, through the myth of being able to construct an identity with material goods. Inequality within the economic and social hierarchy, in Marx’s view, is what paved the way for a capitalist system to function efficiently. Where workers are still alienated from the process of work, Marxist sociology can still be seen as relevant today as it provides explanations as to why our society still thrives off of the subordination of the proletariat.
On the other hand, Marxist critics argue that the class structure visible today differs greatly from that of Marx’s time. The emergence of new classes puts into question the relevance of Marxist sociology, which primarily focuses on the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. In doing so, it ignores the largest class structure: the established middle class. The rise of social media and IT communications has allowed for individuals of different social classes to interact with one another on a daily basis, thus young people are now less inclined to align with an individual class, as they have access to a range of them. Documenting his work in the 19th century, it could be argued that, through industrialisation and globalisation, Marxist sociology has become outdated, as it no longer meets the demands of such an advanced, technology-crazed era.
In Britain, many individuals identify as Marxist sympathizers, believing that many of today’s crises could be addressed by an implementation of Marxist ideas. Among these problems lies arguably the greatest issue of our generation; the survival of the world’s ecosystem. Economic exploitation remains the propulsion for capitalism, and where consumption levels are continually rising, so is the need for production. Within his writings of ‘Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844’, Marx became increasingly troubled with the relationship between man and nature, or rather the alienation between the two. John Holloway reflects on Marx’s ideas, in saying that:
“It has become clear that we humans are destroying our existence… unlikely that a society in which the determining force is the pursuit of profit can reverse this trend.”
The steady destruction of the ecological system driven by modern capitalism is most widely acknowledged in regard to the cataclysmic outcome that is climate change. The deforestation of rainforests and pollution of the oceans are just two consequences. Many Marxists suggest that the environmental problems we currently face and are facing in the near future, are a result of the capitalist system. An increase in consumption levels as well as constant development in different markets put extreme pressure on the environment, whilst reducing the number of natural resources available. Newer-Marxists argue that capitalism is ecologically unsustainable, and until it is eradicated, environmental conditions will only deteriorate further. Marxist ideas influence not only sociology, but also economic theory and philosophy, and can be seen to hold a continuing relevance in contemporary society through its links to the exploitation of capitalism and its contribution to the near-collapse of the ecosystem.
Although it is certain that the emergence of capitalism has contributed heavily to the issues mentioned in the latter, it would be naïve to ignore other factors. Companies who have a hand in the production of harmful materials that damage the ecosystem, such as oil companies, work to suit supply and demand. The constant demand for these products re-enforces the fact that human actions also cause environmental damage. Marxist critics further argue that contrary to popular belief, capitalism simply makes items readily available as opposed to forcing individuals to buy them. This adds to the argument that capitalism today is less exploitative, thus making Marxist sociology obsolete, as it is no longer relevant in explaining the workings of today’s society.
Despite the changes to capitalism over the last two centuries, the exploitation of wage labour remains the foundations for its economic system. Marx’s findings in ‘Das Kapital’ stress that, as a result of a few large businesses controlling virtually all means of production, capitalism will always lead to a concentration of wealth. This was particularly true in Industrial times, where it was believed that 10% of the population effectively owned all means of production. This concentration of wealth in the hands of a few people explains the reasons behind such high poverty levels in the world today – over 3 billion people living under the poverty line.
It appears that, during worker’s movements and political motives, Marx’ theories become a topic of discussion.  This was evident during the emergence of the 2008 recession as well as at the start of the century when the term “globalisation” first materialised.
“Marx helps us to understand the development of capitalism, the way it will change, and resulting relationships that emerge locally.”
Regardless of the general consensus, Marxism can be viewed as a theory of value rather than a political theory, which perhaps explains why a “return to Marxism” approach appears in times of distress. This puts emphasis on the relevance of Marx’s ideas and their ongoing applicability to today’s society.
Nevertheless, over the past decade, there has become an increased focus on the rights of women, something that Marx failed to acknowledge throughout his years. This was not uncommon from academics at the time, as Marx focused heavily on manual labour whilst ignoring women’s domestic and reproductive labour. Inequalities within gender and race have now become the focus of attention for many modern sociologists, particularly in such a sensitive climate in which we now exist. Marxism’s “ignorance” towards other social groups bar social classes has somewhat reduced its relevance in today’s culture, for the benefit of other sociological perspectives such as feminists and postmodernists, who perhaps better address these issues.
“Marxism may be all very well in theory.  Whenever it has into practice… the result  has  been  terror, tyranny and mass murder on an inconceivable scale.”
After the fall of the communist states within the ‘Eastern bloc’, Marxism’s credibility has since remained in question. The reputation of Marxist theories has been tarnished by the rise of two extreme leadership styles, Stalinism and Leninism, who claim to have risen from the very fundamentals of Marxism.
However, as recognised by Terry Eagleton, “…capitalism has brought about great material advances”. With the emergence of capitalism came the emergence of a modern society, that was heavily based on science and wealth, which was particularly appealing to the majority. Without capitalism, the technology available, as well as general resources that are designed to improve quality of life would not be as readily accessible as they are today. Nonetheless, globalisation has led to the stimulation of new developments, including increased levels of social mobility that has meant Marxism is no longer relevant with Western society.
“Marxism is finished.  … the increasingly classless, socially mobile, postindustrial Western societies of the present.
All things considered, there is no denying that through his work, Marx left an everlasting impression on individuals worldwide. However, to suggest that Marxist sociology still holds a continuing relevance in today’s society could be deemed as far-fetched. It would be more accurate to suggest that Marx and Engel’s works are simply used as historical references, as opposed to current ones. What once replaced the outdated functionalist ideas has paved the way for newer, more relevant perspectives e.g. Postmodernism.

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