Practice Question – For Marx, class divisions are outcomes of exploitation. Discuss.  [UPSC 2014]

Approach – Introduction, Explain Marx’s theory of class struggle, Illustrate the exploitation of workers in capitalism and how it accentuates class divisions, Criticism, Conclusion


Karl Heinrich Marx was born into a comfortable middle-class Jewish family in Trier in Germany on May 5, 1818. His father Hirschel Marx was a lawyer and while Karl was still a child decided to abandon his Jewish faith and become a Christian to escape anti-Semitism. After finishing his schooling in Trier, Karl Marx entered Bonn University to study law. At Bonn he became engaged to Jenny von Westphalen. Later Karl joined Berlin University and changed his subject of specialization from Law to Philosophy. Here Marx came under the influence of the philosophy of G. W. F. Hegel.

Working with the Communist League, a federation of workers, Karl Marx became an organizer and leader of a revolutionary party. In 1847, the London branch of the Communist League entrusted him with writing of a document which would spell aims and objectives of the party. Karl Marx welcomed this idea and produced the document early in 1848. Just a few weeks before the Paris revolution of 1848, this document was published. It was called the Manifesto of the Communist Party

In 1864, when Worker’s International was formed in London, Marx joined its executive committee as the representative of the German artisans in London. The International grew fast and Marx controlled its activities from London. While involved in these pre-occupations, Karl Marx published in 1867 the first volume of Das Kapital, his magnum, opus.


Marx was largely influenced by the German Philosophy and Idealism of his days. More specifically, influence of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Ludwig Feuerbach is noticeable in his writings. Hegel’s ideas can be located in the broad framework of idealist philosophy. In a general sense, idealist philosophy lays emphasis on ideas i.e., reason for th understanding of social change. Further, Hegel explains dialectics in terms of three elements: thesis, antithesis and synthesis. Thesis is the dominant form of ideas prevalent in society at any given point of time which are perceived to be ‘true’. Antithesis is the contrary set of ideas which are formulated over a period of time. Over time, the thesis and antithesis reconcile in the form of synthesis. In due course, this synthesis serves as thesis. Opposing the new thesis emerges new antithesis and subsequently new synthesis arises. Seen in this way, progress in history happens by way of series of clashes between an idea (i.e. thesis) and its contradiction (i.e. antithesis) leading to the rise of a new idea (i.e., synthesis).  Marx accepted Hegel’s idea of dialectics but did not agree with the emphasis on ideas. Instead of ideas, Marx brought in material forces and developed the idea of dialectical materialism.


The whole course of human history is exploited in terms of changes occurring in the modes of production and exchange. Starting with primitive communism the mode of production has passed through three stages: slavery, feudalism and capitalism and the consequent division of society into distinct classes (slave-master, serf-baron and proletariat-capitalist) and the struggle of these classes against one another.

Historical materialism is also the cornerstone of Marx’s understanding of the process of social change. Over time,  forces of production evolve. When this happens, they contradict existing relations of production. When the contradiction intensifies, the existing mode of production and its superstructure breaks down. New relations of production that match with forces of production emerge. This dialectic between forces of production and relations of production lies at the root of societal development that explains history of societies. Thus, conflict is viewed as a creative force that triggers progress.


A class is a group of persons who stand in the same relation to property or to nonproperty, to the factors of production such as labour power and means of production. We might say that a class is a group of people who by virtue of what they possess have to engage in the same type of activities if they want to make the best use of their endowments. Marx was not the first to discover the concepts of class and class struggle. But Marx was the first to see class and class conflict as central categories in the unfolding of history.

Marx showed (1) that the existence of classes is linked to predetermined historical phases of the development of production; (2) that the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat; and (3) that the dictatorship itself is only the transition leading to the abolition of all classes and the establishment of a classless society.

In the Manifesto Marx says that history hitherto has been a history of class struggle. As capitalism developed and the capitalists acquired more and more power and wealth it also created an impoverished proletariat. Two basic classes oppose each other in the capitalist system: the owners of the means of production, the capitalists and the workers who have sold their labour power. The conflict between the bourgeois who does not want to give up their privileges and the proletariat who have become aware of their loss, of their alienation, of the inhuman situation in which they live and work will create the conditions for a revolution. This revolution will be the prelude to the establishment of communism.


For Marx, alienation involves a sense of detachment of workers from their own labour and the objects they create. Consider the case of a carpenter who makes a chair but cannot use it for himself. The chair which he has made himself is for sale but not for his own use. In a shoe factory, for example, a worker produces say only the heel while someone else produces the upper part and yet another worker assembles all the parts and forms the shoe. The work of each one is mechanical and not creative.

According to Marx, alienation takes place in four ways: (i) workers lose control over what they produce; (ii) workers lose control over their own work activity since they sell their labour for wages and treat the productive process only as a means of subsistence; (iii) workers have to produce mechanically with no creativity or mental engagement; and (iv) private labour of workers makes them self-centered and individualistic, they compete with each other. This estranges them from each other.


Capitalism today is less exploitative – Two historical examples of this are when Henry Ford, the famous car manufacturer, realised that paying his workers good wages would generate demand for the cars he produced – a process which lead to workers being less exploited and ‘buying into’ the Capitalist system. A second example is the move towards ‘Keynsian Economics’ in which the state came to play a more central role in regulating Capitalism to ensure that worst excesses of exploitation, inequality and insecurity that pure Capitalism generates were minimised. Part of this involved the introduction of the welfare state in many European Countries after the Second World War.

Marx argued that those who control the economic base controlled the economic superstructure – yet many of our institutions today have at least relative autonomy from Bourgeois control – it is quite obvious, for example, that huge sections of the press are critical of the Elite and many popular music artists are extremely critical of the Capitalist system.

Classic Marxist theory has been criticised for being economically deterministic. Marx argued that ‘economic laws’ determined not only the shape of society but also the direction of history itself. On reflection, however, it is clearly the case that other factors shape history too – different societies have responded differently to the global spread of Capitalism – some have pushed neo-liberalism (America and Britain under Thatcher and Bliare) others have taken a social democratic line and used the state as a buffer to protect citizens from the worst excesses of Capitalist exploitation (Scandanavian countries); China has developed a form of autocratic- capitalism and other countries (Cuba and more recently Venezuala) have rejected it in favour of a Socialist dictatorship.


One can see that his idea on understanding history as the continuous line of development marked by the successive evolutionary stages of human society is very much influenced by the evolutionary thoughts of that time. Similarly the dialectics of idealism by Hegel was modified and ‘turned upside down’ by Marx when he applied his dialectics of materialism. The core values of thesis, antithesis and synthesis remained the same but their inherent nature change from Hegel’s progress of ideas to Marx’s progress of means of production thus leading to progress of human history. The labour theory of value given by classical economists like Adam Smith and David Ricardo were influential in Marxist writings on use value, exchange value and surplus value. Along with class and relations of subordination, the central ideas of Marx included means of production, relations of production, mode of production and forces of production which in the ultimate analysis provide a picture of Capitalism. Needless to say, as a philosopher and economist of the times of revolutions of 18th and 19th centuries, Marx’s writings still resonate in the contemporary times.

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