Karl Heinrich Marx (1818-1883) was a German thinker with a great influence on the social sciences. He was a founder of the labor movement and a central figure in the history of socialism and communism.
When "Die Rheinische Zeitung", the newspaper Marx worked for, was no longer allowed to appear, he fled to Paris with his wife. It was not long before he was not welcome in France because of his writings. He ended up in Brussels, where in 1848 he published the Manifesto of the Communist Party, together with his lifelong friend Friedrich Engels. The Belgian government subsequently expelled Marx from the country. Marx embarked on a ramble, which took him back to Paris, then to Germany, Paris again, and finally, as a 31-year-old exile, he traveled to London, where he wrote "Das Kapital" and lived until his death.
Founder of German Sociology
Karl Marx and Lorenz von Stein are seen by some (e.g. König, 1987) as the actual founders of German sociology. Their analysis of the opposition between state and society stems from the ideas of German idealism, especially from the legal philosophy of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) who saw the state as the reality of the moral idea, as the realized freedom. German sociology arose in preparation of the conflict between state and society after the second French revolution of 1830.
Long after Adam Ferguson wrote his "Study on the History of Civil Society" (1767), in which he speaks of "social relationships of superiority and subordination, which may be based on the distribution of goods or other external circumstances" (Geiger, 1949), Karl Marx distinguished three main classes:
1. the landowners who live on land rent,
2. the capitalists; owners of industrial or other means of production or investment capital; they live on "profit";
3. wage laborers, who live from the sale of their labor power.
Marx and his long-time friend Friedrich Engels were proponents of historical materialism, which states:
A growth in the total amount of capital leads to greater inequality in wealth between capital owners and workers. As capital owners threaten to replace labor-power with machines, wages fall, profits rise, and tremendous resistance ensues. If it is organized resistance, means of production can become common property and people receive means of consumption according to need.
Marx saw revolution as a social reality. According to him, society had been completely economized, and the state had fallen into the hands of the propertied class. All established order appeared to him as a dead schematism in which all human dignity must perish along with freedom. Any form of order was seen as an obstacle to the development of the morally free person.
Marx thus saw conflict as ingrained in the social order of a small ruling class and a large working class. He used the structure of capitalism as an explanation for poverty and unemployment.
(Later conflict theorists are e.g.Max Weber and Ralf Dahrendorf.)
The driving force of history, according to Marx, is not intellectual reason, but economic and technological development. Marx assumed products to have measurable value and observable economic effects on society. He emphasized the creativity of human labor, human agency in general, and especially the influence of their social being on their consciousness.
Karl Marx's concept of alienation refers to the separation of people from the things that they produce, the products of their labor, and the processes of production. This separation is a result of the capitalist mode of production, in which the worker does not own the means of production (e.g., factories, tools, and machinery) and must sell their labor to capitalists in order to survive.
According to Marx, this separation of the worker from the means of production leads to four forms of alienation:
Alienation from the product of labor: The worker does not own the product of their labor and has no control over how it is used or distributed.
Alienation from the act of production: The worker is reduced to a mere appendage of the machine and has no control over the production process.
Alienation from their species-being: The worker is reduced to a mere means of production and is deprived of the opportunity to develop and realize their full potential as a human being.
Alienation from other workers: The worker is isolated and competition among workers is encouraged, rather than cooperation and solidarity.
Marx believed that alienation was an inherent problem in capitalist societies and that it could only be overcome through the abolition of capitalism and the establishment of a socialist society in which the means of production are owned and controlled by the workers themselves.
Next to this, workers increasingly see themselves replaced by machines. The worker flees into religion ("the opium of the people") or into the buying of things.
Maintenance of labor power
With the development of capitalism, the worker, on the one hand, obtains freedom to break out of the servile, aristocratic, estate and guild associations of the pre-modern period and thereby obtains complete freedom over his capacity to work. As a free contractor he is the sole owner of his labor power and therefore has an exclusive right of disposal over it. On the other hand, however, he is also “free” from all the means necessary for production and is thus in turn compelled to offer his labour-power to the owners of capital — i.e. to sell his labour-power (Kühl, 2017).
In his book "Das Kapital", Marx also wrote about the need for the capitalist to deal with workers in a sustainable way (Marx, 2018 ; p. 172):
"However, through their activity, the work, a certain quantity of the human muscle, nerve, brain, etc. is expended, which has to be replaced again. This increased expenditure requires an increased intake. If the owner of labor-power has worked today, he must be able to repeat the same process tomorrow under the same conditions of strength and health. The sum of the means of subsistence must therefore suffice to keep the working individual as a working individual in his normal state of life."
Capitalism and its logic of commodification
The form of commodity circulation, according to Marx, is commodity – money – commodity (C-M-C). Money is an exchange equivalent that can be used to buy all other goods. It is the most common of all goods. Goods, according to Marx, have a use value; e.g. when you use it yourself, and also an exchange value; when you sell it for money.
The development of capitalism leads to an increase in interest in exchange value instead of in use value. In capitalism, the circulation of money becomes an end in itself. Instead of "C-M-C" (commodities - money - commodities), the logic "M-C-M" (money - commodities - money) now dominates. Marx calls the process of making more money out of money and then using this money to increase money “accumulation of capital”: "M-C-M' " (money - commodities - more money).
Marx thus saw an unlimited logic of commodification within capitalism (ibidem, pp 258-259):
"But in its immeasurably blind drive, its werewolf-like craving for more work, capital overruns not only the moral, but also the purely physical maximum limits of the working day. It usurps time for growth, development and healthy maintenance of the body. It robs you of time, requires the consumption of open air and sunlight. It gives up on the meal and, if possible, falls in love with the production process itself, so that food is added to the worker as a mere means of production, like coal to the steam boiler and tallow or oil to the machinery. It shortens the healthy sleep for collecting, renewing and refreshing the vital energy to as many hours of paralysis as the revival of an absolutely exhausted organism makes indispensable."
The end of history?
Marx was a revolutionary who fought against the exploitation of workers by capitalist societies and their state structures. Marx promised the end of history, but was concerned about a very specific situation, which he presented as persevering. Critics of his work attacked the metaphysics of Marx's end-time promise, with its inseparable violence, and argued for replacing this by a concrete and rational humanism (König, 1987).
Did Marx' prophesy come true?
The ten points of the Communist Manifesto have essentially been realized in the western, progressive democracies today. On top of this, modern social policy has achieved a much more far-reaching safeguarding of work than Marx ever dreamed of. Moreover, the middle classes, against Marx's prophecy, were by no means crushed and proletarianized by the further development of capitalism; large parts of the old middle class have adapted and survived; a new, multifaceted middle class also developed (König, 1987).
Theodor Geiger argued that, because there are many ambiguities, internal contradictions and conceptual shifts in Marx' work regarding social class, the real importance of Marx' teaching does not lie in its theoretical content, but in the fact that it became the core of the dogmatics of a political movement:
"Marx and Engels pursued agitational intentions with the Communist Manifesto and therefore simplified the picture of class stratification to an opposition between two fronts. This clear model then became a stereotype with the further spread of the political creed." - (Geiger, 1949).
Application of Marx' work to the management of safety
Marx would say that, in capitalist societies, employers are often motivated to prioritize profits over the safety and well-being of their workers, and this can lead to dangerous and unhealthy working conditions. From a Marxist perspective, the management of safety in an organization could be seen as a way for the bourgeoisie to maintain control over the proletariat and keep them compliant, rather than as a genuine concern for the well-being of the workers.
Below you can see a video about Marx's ideas from what I think is a great online course from the University of Amsterdam on classical sociology:"What people think is influenced by the social context of which they are a part."
Geiger, T. (1949), Die Klassengesellschaft im Schmelztiegel, Köln/Hagen: Gustav Kiepenheuer.
König, R. (1987), Soziologie in Deutschland - Begründer, Verächter, Verfechter, München: Hanser Verlag.
Kühl, S. (2017), Arbeit - Marxistische und systemtheoretische Zugänge, Wiesbaden: Springer.
Marx, K. (1872), Das Kapital: Kritik der politischen Ökonomie.
The Karl Marx Monument in Chemnitz. On the wall behind the monument the sentence “Proletarians of all countries unite!” from the Communist Manifesto is depicted in German, English, French and Russian: