Contribution of Marx to Economic Sociology

Contribution of Marx to Economic Sociology: Karl Marx (1818–83) was one of the pioneers in Economic Sociology. Marx had been trained in law (and in philosophy), but was self-taught in economics. He was obsessed with the role of the economy in society and developed a theory in which the economy determines the general evolution of society. What drives people in their everyday lives, Marx argues, is material interest, and this also determines the structure and evolution of society at large. While Marx wanted to develop a strictly scientific approach to society, his ideas were infused by his political desire to change the world. “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways,” he wrote in his youth, “the point, however, is to change it”. The end result was Marxism—a mixture of social science and political ideology, wielded together into a single doctrine.

For a variety of reasons it is obvious that economic sociology cannot accept Marxism on its own terms. Apart from the errors common to most of nineteenth-century thought, Marx’s work is much too tendentious and dogmatic to be adopted as a whole. The task that confronts economic sociology today is instead to decide which parts of Marxism can be helpful, and then extract these. In doing so, it may be useful to follow the suggestion of Schumpeter, and distinguish among Marx as a sociologist, an economist, and a revolutionary. By proceeding in this manner, the unity of Marx’s thought is no doubt destroyed, as Schumpeter notes. But a wholesale rejection of Marx is avoided, and what is relevant in his work to economic sociology can be salvaged.

As of today, very little effort has been made to extract those parts of Marx’s work that may be helpful to economic sociology; and what follows should therefore be seen as preliminary in nature. Marx’s point of departure, in his mature work, is labor and production. People have to work in order to live, and this is something that is true for all societies. “Labor,” to cite a central passage in Capital, “is a necessary condition, independent of all forms of society, for the existence of the human race”. Material interests are universal, and labor is social rather than individual in nature since people have to cooperate with one another in order to survive.

Marx severely criticized the economists for their use of the isolated individual in their analyses, and he sometimes spoke of “social individuals” to make it clear that the individual is always connected to other people. The most important interests are similarly of a collective nature—what Marx calls “class interests.” These interests, however, will be effective only if people recognize themselves as belonging to a certain class. Marx notes, for example, in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte that during the mid-nineteenth century, the peasants were “incapable of enforcing their class interest. . . . The identity of their interests begets no unity . . . they form no class”.

Marx severely criticized Adam Smith’s idea that individual economic interests somehow come together and further the general interest of society, as through “an invisible hand.” It is rather the case, according to Marx, that classes fight each other with such ferocity that history becomes written in “letters of blood and fire”. Bourgeois society is no exception on this score since it encourages “the most violent, mean and malignant passions of the human heart, the Furies of private interest”.

In works such as The Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848; co-authored with Friedrich Engels), Grundrisse (1857–58), A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859), and Capital (1867), Marx traces the history of the class struggle, from early times to the future that he envisions. In a famous formulation from the 1850s, Marx states that at a certain stage the “relations of production” enter into conflict with “the forces of production,” and the result is the revolution and passage to a new “mode of production”. In Capital, Marx writes that he has laid bare “the economic law of motion of modern society,” and that this law works “with iron necessity towards inevitable results”.

Economics, philosophy, and law do not represent independent attempts to understand human society, as its practitioners typically believe, according to Marx, but are part of the class struggle and reflect what goes on in the economy. They are part of society’s “superstructure,” as opposed to its “base” (e.g., Marx). Another way to phrase this would be to say that economics, philosophy, and law express the interests of various classes, but since the practitioners of these disciplines are not aware of this, their areas of study tend to become “ideology.”

A positive quality to Marx’s approach is his realism and insight when it comes to understanding the strength with which people have been willing to fight for their material interests throughout history. He has also contributed to the understanding of the way in which large groups of people, with similar economic interests, tend to unite under certain circumstances in an attempt to realize their interests. Having effectively linked the concept of class to the economic structure of the economy, he moved without effort from the individual worker to capitalism as a whole. Marx also worked very hard to keep up with economics, and he should be credited with having discovered many areas of social behavior that, contrary to what was thought at the time, are indeed influenced by economic interests. Law, economics, philosophy, and so on are all influenced by economic forces—even if there is more to the story than that.

On the negative side, from the viewpoint of economic sociology, Marx severely underestimated the role that interests other than economic ones play in economic life. His notion that economic interests in the last hand determine what goes on in society is impossible to defend. “Social structures, types and attitudes are coins that do not readily melt,” as Schumpeter notes in Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. Marx’s attempt, finally, to turn his analysis into a philosophy of history is also unacceptable from the viewpoint of modern economic sociology. There is quite a distance, in other words, between Marx’s work and that of economic sociology.


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