Karl Marx's Theories: Class Differentiation and Revolution, Socialism & Capitalism

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  • 0:05 Karl Marx: Becoming a…
  • 1:40 Theories of Social Class
  • 2:59 Alienation and Revolution
  • 4:40 Capitalism and Socialism
  • 8:34 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Bethany Johnson
Expert Contributor
Lesley Chapel

Lesley has taught American and World History at the university level for the past seven years. She has a Master's degree in History.

In this lesson, we will discuss the difference between socialism and capitalism, how Karl Marx believed that social class dictated one's social life and who were the bourgeoisie and proletariat.

Karl Marx: Becoming a Socialist

In our previous lecture, we learned how Karl Marx's ideas are studied and used by philosophers, historians, economists, sociologists and political scientists. Marx's ideas were seen as so radical that he was perceived as an inspiration to revolutionists and a threat by leaders of state governments.

Karl Marx's work has had an everlasting impact on the arena of sociology in that his views opened the door to the study of how one's social class has a direct influence on one's life experiences and life chances. His work also opened the door for many differing perspectives on the issue of the wealthy and the poor in society.

While in Paris from 1843 to 1845, Marx was able to meet with other radical thinkers and revolutionists, for Paris had become a center for all things social, political and artistic. Here, Marx was able to study socialist theories that were not available to him in Germany.

It was during this time that Marx met and became lifelong friends with Friedrich Engels and was immersed into the socialist world, focusing on the conditions of the working class. For the first time, Marx was beginning to understand the conditions and misery of the working-class people.

He wrote many editorials regarding such and, once again, was expelled from his country - but this time by the French government. Marx would spend much of his life expelled from Germany and other countries as a result of his radical (for the times) thinking.

Karl Marx was expelled from Germany and a number of other countries for his radical ideas
Marx Expelled

Theories of Social Class

Karl Marx was one of the first social scientists to focus mainly on social class. His main focus on social class was that one's social class dictated one's social life.

Basically, Marx meant that if one is in the upper class, life was one of leisure and abundance, while those in the lower class lived lives of hardship and poverty.

According to Marx, there was one social element that would determine where one fit in the social class hierarchy: that of who controls the means of production, meaning who owned the resources necessary to produce what people needed to survive.

The wealthy would be the individuals who owned the land and factories. The wealthy would then control all elements of society - including the livelihoods of the lower, working class. The lower, working class would work for hourly wages on the land or in the factories.

Marx wanted to better understand how so many people could be in poverty in a world where there was an abundance of wealth. His answer was simple: capitalism.

According to sociologist John Macionis, the wealthy and the working poor ''have opposing interests and are separated by a vast gulf of wealth and power, making class conflict inevitable.''

Alienation and Revolution

In history, those members of the aristocracy and the church owned the means of production, and the peasants worked for the aristocracy. With the onset of the Industrial Revolution, Marx thought that he would see more of the working poor rise financially and socially. However, this did not materialize.

In the industrial society, the aristocracy was replaced by the capitalists (also known as the bourgeoisie). These were the people who owned businesses with the goal of earning a profit, and the working class was replaced by the proletariat, the people who labored for wages.

Marx believed that this system was inherently unfair. Under capitalism, Marx believed that the workers would become poorer and poorer and experience alienation. Alienation is seen as the workers becoming more distanced from, or isolated from, their work, resulting in a feeling of powerlessness.

To replace this alienation and extreme social class structure, Marx believed that capitalism had to end and be replaced by a socialist system that would make all equal and have all people's needs met.

In his work with Fredrick Engels, The Communist Manifesto, Marx stated, ''The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.'' Thus, Marx had called for a workers' revolution where the proletarians would rise up against the bourgeoisie, overthrowing capitalism. To Marx's despair, though, such revolutions occurred in various countries such as Russia and China, but did not occur in the more industrialized nations of the time, like Britain and Germany.

Capitalism and Socialism

To get a better understanding of Karl Marx's disdain for capitalism and how he felt that the answer to social inequality was socialism, let's look at the two economic systems in a bit more detail. Capitalism and socialism are different types of economic systems that exist and are used by many countries. The United States is considered a capitalist country, while Denmark is considered a socialist country. While both the United States and Denmark have a democratic government, they differ in their economic systems.

Capitalism is an economic system where the means of production is owned by private individuals. In this system, the economy and the use of resources are controlled by individual business owners and private companies. A capitalist system is also known as free market enterprise.

The main focus of capitalism is profit - businesses exist to make money. When one owns a company or manages a company, the goal is to earn a profit or to increase the price of stock in the business firm. Essentially, the purpose of capitalism is the accumulation of as much wealth for the owners as possible.

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Additional Activities

Writing Prompts About Karl Marx's Theories:

Writing Prompt 1:

Compose an essay that describes Karl Marx's views on social class. What, according to Marx, were the lives in those of the upper and lower classes like? What was the main distinguisher between social classes? What kinds of occupations did the wealthy have? What kinds of occupations did those of the lower classes have?

Writing Prompt 2:

Write an essay that describes Marx's definition of capitalism and his views on it.

Writing Prompt 3:

Write an essay that examines Marx's and Engels' views in The Communist Manifesto. Specifically, what did they mean when they stated, "The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win."

Writing Prompt 4:

Write an essay that explains why Marx was disappointed that socialist revolutions were occurring in agrarian nations like Russia instead of in industrialized nations like the United States or Great Britain.

Writing Prompt 5:

Compose an essay that explores why Marxism remains important and relevant in the study of sociology.

Poster Prompt 1:

Create a poster that shows the definitions of and differences between capitalism and socialism. Be sure to depict the pros and cons of both systems.

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