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Marx’s Criticism of Capitalism and Sociological Theory


Sociology involves the study of how groups of people behave towards each other (Bratton, Denham &Deutschmann 2009, P.14) A theory is a set of frameworks or concepts that, if taken together, attempt to show how a given occurrence happens the way it does. Sociological theory determines actions of human beings in relation to their social and economic existence. It establishes how human beings interact and function while considering the basic structures of a human society. It gives a historical basis of understanding our society. Sociological theory assumes that societies should have basic rules or systems on which they rely on to function. It may assume that there are morals and free will within a society or that societies lack social justice for individuals to liberate themselves. At times, sociological theory may involve conformity to laid-down values and the status quo of the society (Ray 1999, P.35). The original contributors to the works of sociological theory include classical philosophers and thinkers like Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Max Weber, Emile Durkheim and even Sigmund Freud. Karl Marx contributed to the theory in his criticism of capitalism (Stones 1998, P.55). Although various scholars either expanded or opposed his claim, it is important to determine how Marx’s criticism added to the origin of sociological theories.

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Karl Marx [1818-1883] was a German Philosopher whose ideas were considered as the genesis of socialism- seen as an alternative to the oppressive capitalism. His observation was influenced by the way production in capitalism formed structures of social life (O’Laughlin 1975, P. 342). In his disapproval of capitalism, Marx observed that the rich in the society were wealthy and powerful while the working class, who laboured more in the production of this wealth, remained poor. He argued that capitalism generated two main groups of people in the society: the Bourgeoisies and the Proletariats. The former own property, control the means of production and use the proletariats to produce goods and services. In turn, capitalism led the society into classes consisting of low, middle and upper class. Upper class citizens are those who own property such as land, machinery or any other form of wealth. Middle class citizens are those who lie between the poor and the rich; they don’t own property but their income is quite stable. They are workers but in the hierarchy of payment, they are above the low class citizens. In this case, Marx argued that Capitalism relied on labour to divide people into classes. While labour was important in instilling specialization among workers, Marx observed that it was responsible for the devaluation of the same worker. The worker, owing to the fact that he does not own the means of production continued to work for the rich and in turn this would make him be like the same commodities he was producing (Marx 2001, P.13-16).

Marx’s Criticism of Capitalism

In capitalism, Marx saw that employers considered the benefits of the work done as more important than the person who worked make the benefits. While the value of the product was formed through the amount of capital, time and labour invested into it, the value of the worker diminished as though he ‘donated’ it to the objects produced. In this case, every worker under capitalism would live in denial; neither liking his work nor opting out of it because it sustained him. Workers would become estranged from the work in that the more efforts they put in the production process, the more their employer benefits while they lose value (O’Laughlin 1975, P.342-55). They produce for the owner to get richer, not for themselves. Thus in the loss of value, the worker would often be seen as a product which could easily find a replacement. Workers lost control of their own selves by getting alienated from the work itself, missing to take part in the human expectations of them [species-essence], and their lives became dependent on what their employers would want them to do. For in stance, factory workers would be given a schedule of time and amount of work to be done. Without completion of the work or working for the entire time schedule, a worker would risk being sacked or missing the pay. In this system, Marx argued that employers would torment workers by exploiting their effort. Because the exploiters were fellow human beings, Marx added that Capitalism apart from stifling human relations would create individualism, where people aim to gain material advantage regardless of how it impinges on the life of others. Capitalism made everyone to desire to climb the class because of the notion it created: That to be rich is to be powerful and comfortable (Marx 2001, P. 18-22).

In trying to advance status, individuals would more often prefer material gains to human feelings. In this case, they would do anything as long as there was a gainful incentive attached to it. For example, individuals might not like the work itself, but the wedges accrued from the work make them uncertain to quit. Moreover, the desire for material gains would make the closest of friends to mistreat each other or the most inherent adversaries to cooperate (O’Laughlin 1975, P.356).

In capitalism, Marx saw that labour did not help the worker any more than sustaining his life. In fact work was just a type of bondage that secluded man from social connections. The fact that he depended on it for life made him its slave; only existing to work and losing importance thereafter. Even more worrying to Marx, was that workers would keep struggling to maintain themselves and by enriching others. For employers to sustain the source of labour, they made workers to exist without choice. They were not allowed to freely develop their minds but instead they were ordered to do what employers wanted. Thus workers were compelled, through the desire to satisfy their own needs, to satisfy employers’ needs (Bratton, Denham & Deutschmann 2009, P. 16).

Marx added that if capitalism would not be avoided, the society would continue to be split up into the powerful and powerless groups. The latter would be the subject of the farmer’s discrimination, perpetuation of social injustice and continual conflicts. Individuals would struggle among their classes over resources. The capacity and social stability of societies lied in the wealth and organization it possessed. However, capitalism would evolve gaps between classes and people would become aggressive against one another. While the minority would prosper, majority of the people would remain slaves. Thus a society would not develop with capitalism simply because wealth would be vested among a few individuals who must limit its (wealth) distribution to sustain their status. Moreover, the status of the working class would continue to dwindle if they didn’t rise against the bourgeoisies (Ritzer 2002, P. 120).

To correct this ‘mess’, Marx suggested that workers were to seize power by forming unions and compel the property owners into communal ownership. As a result, Classes would dissolve and all human beings would exist equally in what he called Communism. In this people would earn what they work for and human beings would have time to relate on a social level with regard to their human existence (Marx 2001, P.35).

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Contributions to Sociological Theory

In relation to sociological theory, Marx’s contributions may be noted in his analysis of class struggles and conflicts as observed in capitalism. In conflict theory, Marx stated that conflicts were common and continuous in the society because there were individuals or groups with opposing interests (Ritzer 2002, P.125). These groups were common in capitalist societies. Conflict theory dealt with the materialistic capitalist society, a dialectical method of analysis and a critical view towards the available social and political structures for reforms. The materialistic view of history asserts that social life of a people is influenced by those who work to produce basic goods and services. In Marx’s view, social arrangement of the society was a great factor that determined how work would create relationships among people. Everything of value was a result of this relationship: working men and women managed the conditions under which they lived. That is, people irresistibly entered in explicit social relations, not by choice but by external compulsions associated with their determination to live. The sum of these production relations was the economic structure of the society, the basis on which legal, social and political systems were founded. This was also the foundation to which creating social awareness corresponded. Thus, Marx was stating that the system of production determined the stages of developing the social, intellectual and political life of people; in that the social existence of a people determined their awareness and opposed the view that it was people’s awareness about their neighbours that influenced their social being.

Marx also emphasized on several stages of economic and social changes in which a society would be transformed. To determined the historical development of a society, Marx observed that feudalism, capitalism and socialism would succeed each other in this respective. In the 19th century, capitalism dominated most of the societies. Capitalist societies were driven by the private ownership and how the means of production were controlled by a small number of people in a large population of the society. As a result, this created two huge classes of people: the bourgeoisie (owners of property) and the proletariat (workers whose only possession was labour hours which they offered to capitalists for wedges). The former were powerful and dominant, the latter were powerless and oppressed (Ray 1999, P.69).

On the social scene, conflicts occurred between the dominant and powerful group against the powerless and subordinate group to deny them equal access to resources. The material means of production included land, labour and machinery while the social means pf production included division of labour and classicism. He used the capitalists and the working class to argue his case of class struggles. While the capitalists owned the factors of production, they dominated over the workers. Therefore the existence and dissimilar capacities of these two groups would explode into a conflict. The capitalists would want to dominate in politics, trade and even spiritual leadership at the expense of the poor (Marx 2001, P.36).

Limitations of Marx’s Criticism

Individuals with similar equitable socio-economic status would belong in the same class. As a result, the rich, belonging to the upper class, would use the poor workers to enhance their status (Stones 1998, P.59). Although politics and ethnic groupings also contributed to the formation of these classes, Marx observed that the society largely depended on economic capacity; other factors like politics, ethnicity and religion only followed suit; wealthy citizens either were also dominant in other platforms of social interactions (Marx 2001, P.35). Marx placed people in classes according to their occupations because he felt it is occupation that created their wealth. However, he did not recognize inherited wealth. Thus, while economic stability was the basis of classifying individuals, their status was not entirely the product of their occupation. Marxi’s contribution can be identified in the way he posited that class differences exist in the society based on wealth possession (Ritzer 2002, P. 118).

Exploitation of the lower class manifested in the way employers paid workers less than they ought to. Capitalists would use their economic prowess to control the state and then turn it into a bunch of servants. For example, the police would enforce ownership of property rights by guarding this property against possible intrusion by the poor. They also perpetuated unfair dealings between the employer and the rich by either corruptly turning a blind eye to these dealings or ignoring to put capitalists answerable to the law because they happened to be the ones with political power in the state (Marx 2001, P.33). According to Marx, religion furthered oppression by allowing the rich to mollify the population but in turn continue to mistreat them [the poor] (Ray 1999, P. 70). As observed earlier, religion and the state were close; the leaders of the state (mostly the rich) happened to be either cronies to the clergy, used the law of religion or were religious leaders as well. The use of intellectuals would also create ideas and social organizations that were supportive of classicism. They included the sanctification of institutions like families and religion. The dominant ruling class dominated these institutions and the ideology of the society as created by intellectuals was that of the rich, the poor were forced to obey.

Marx’s dialectical analysis of the society posits that social and economic arrangements of a society created its own demolition. For example, feudalism where land owners exploited the poor land leaser led to the mushrooming of merchants determined to make profits hence capitalism. Similarly capitalism would dissolve to pave way for socialism. Whereas both owners of capital and the working class relied on each other for survival, their economic aims were different. This was a contradiction that Marx saw would lead to conflicts. As a result, tension would build as the working class accumulated an understanding of how they’ve been exploited and then finally try to topple the upper class (Ritzer 2002, P.128).

Marx’s criticism made him believe that sociological theory and political social theory and political arrangements were related. Social theory was perpetuated by political tradition of the people which was guided by social theory itself. Although the history of a society would not be altered, the political activity of the working class would lead to the transitions in social relationships. Marx used material gains as a parameter to determine behaviour of human beings towards each other. Those in possession would always try to sustain their wealth status and hold on power. Thus, individuals were more miserable in capitalism than socialism. The rewards of people’s efforts were eaten by those who did not work for them. Capitalism created social problems and individuals had to create religion and other forms of culture for consolation which unfortunately found themselves under the control of the rich (Stones 1998, P.62)

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While Marx observed social relations in terms of the available economic interaction; his contribution to sociological theory in his classical Marxist theory has been criticised. Marxist was concerned with the oppression of the poor by the rich and how this was the source of social conflicts. To eliminate oppression of the poor, classes had to be abolished and states left to control the means of production where everyone took part as the limitations of classes would have been broken. However, the participation of the whole population in making decisions would lead to the delay in solution making. Thus, the society would remain inefficient and poor and prone to more social problems (Friedman 2006).

In addition, communal method of decision making was apt to create conflicts. It was not easy to satisfy everyone in the societal plan thus, other than delaying the solution, individuals were apt to walk out of the binds of the society for the feeling that the decisions made were not accommodative. In this case, an element of coercion, democracy, was relevant to make individuals abide by the decision (Ritzer 2002, p.130).

In a stable society, it is not the valuation of fellow human beings but the economic system which reflects a superstructure; a combination of religion, economy, social and political aspects. Therefore, if all people were to be taken as equal, then the society could not develop. It was only through competition for scarce resources that human beings grow (Friedman 2006) In competing for resources, individuals tend to be aggressive towards each other but they eventually adapt to newer ways of outdoing one another; for the benefit of the society’s growth. Hence conflict was not oppression, it was an incentive for individual development, hence the society (Bratton, Denham & Deutschmann 2009, P.25).

It can be argued that Marx was subjectively inclined to disliking capitalism for the fact that the lower class were oppressed but he failed to note how societies were never in economic stagnation. The influence created by private ownership of property instilled determination in everyone, to be rich and improve their standards of living. In observing that the economic structure of a society shaped social relations, Marx would have also seen that the determinism created by capitalism would eventually shape these relationships for the better (O’Laughlin 1975, P. 368).


In conclusion, Marx contributed to sociological theory by linking the economic structure of the society and how it affected social interactions. Apparently, he was concerned with the welfare of workers and how the abolition of capitalism would save their oppression. While agreeing with him that the economic tradition of the society determined the social framework, socialism was also prone to creating further conflicts. Nevertheless, his suggestions helped to build sociological theory in understanding how wealth and classes would bring conflicts.


Bratton, J, David, D & Linda, D 2009, Capitalism and Classical Sociological Theory, Toronto University Press, Inc., Toronto, Ontario.

Friedman, M (Producer), 2006, “Free to Choose: The Power of the Market”, Online TV Series. Web.

Marx, K 2001, Preface to a critique of Political Economy, the Electric Book Company, London.

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O’Laughlin, Bridget 1975, “Marxist Approaches in Anthropology”, Annual Review of Anthropology, vol. 4, pp.341-70.

Ray, L 1999, Theorising Classical Sociology, Open University Press, Buckingham. Ritzer, G 2002, Contemporary sociological Theory and its Classical Roots: The Basics, McGraw-Hill, Boston.

Stones, R 1998, Key Sociological Thinkers, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke.

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