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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-20, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 19 December, 2019 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2020.


A fast-paced novel of conjecture and surprises


Marx, Karl

core definition

Karl Marx was a 19th Century philosopher and social theorists who materialist approach to methodology, epistemology and political theorising has had a far-reaching impact academically, politically and socially.

explanatory context

Marx's life and work

Marx (1818-1883) entered the University of Berlin in 1836 at a time when Hegelian idealist philosophy dominated German intellectual thought. His own thought developed partly as a response to Hegelianism and partly as a response to the suffering of the proletariat. This combination of practical and theoretical concerns characterises Marx's own thought.


Marx's early works include the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right published in 1843, the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (1844) and the Theses on Feuerbach (1845). In his early works, Marx identifies the method (historical (dialectical) materialism); the subject (human estrangement) and the site (capitalist society) of social philosophic analysis.


The later works of Marx include Grundrisse, the Critique of Political Economy, and Capital. In these later works Marx examines the structural workings of capitalism in detail (see an analysis of Marx's critique of capitalism here).



Marx's philosophy

There are a several contrasting analyses of Marx's philosophy, social analysis, ontological and epistemological position and methodology.


Marx developed a materialist approach to social, political and economic analysis out of his philosophical opposition to Hegel's objective idealism. From the outset Marx proposed a materialist ontology. His epistemological position developed from an idealist one in his early critique of Hegel's philosophy to a fully materialist one by the time he wrote Capital with the transition coming around the time of writing The German Ideology.


Marx adopted a totalistic approach and developed the notion of dialectic which was central to Hegelian idealism. Central to Marx's approach was an analysis of history and of ideology. His earlier work was concerned with alienation but his later work was more concerned with structural relationships, particularly the nature of the relations of production.


Marx's methodology was expressly anti-positivist, and he referred to it as historical materialism. Arguably, he developed a version of dialectical materialism (which is different to the realist materialism of later so-called Marxist dialectical materialists).


Marx's ontology and epistemology


Marx adopted a materialst ontology and (eventually) a materialist epistemology.


For Marx, scientific knowledge is the only valid form of knowledge. However, when he talks of science, Marx means empirically-grounded theoretical analysis as opposed to metaphysical speculation. His notion of science is distinct from that found in positivism, as his materialism is distinct from the bourgeois materialism of the positivists.


Marx's view of science incorporates an explicit thesis on the production of scientific knowledge. Marx argues that knowledge is not the revelation of an objective world but a product of practical activity (praxis).


Marx's basic tenets

The following underlying tenets inform the epistemological and ontological position of Marx's early work.


First, Marx rejected Hegel's idealism, embodied in the Spirit i.e that mind eventually comes to recognise the world as an exteriorisation of itself.


Second, Marx maintained that philosophical analysis must begin with people.


Third, he saw social philosophy as about the reconciliation of people with themselves and with the world, i.e he saw people as alienated beings and was of the view that reconciliation can be achieved by people recognising the sources of alienation and overcoming the alienation. This is in contrast Hegel's view of the recognition of being as a product of self-knowledge. Marx envisages a de-alienated state in which people will affirm themselves in a world of their own creation.


Fourth, Marx grounds alienation in the alienation of labour. For Marx, people ar essentially creative beings and capitalism denies the creativity of labour. Thus Marx argues (against Feurebach) that the idea that alienation is the result of a 'mythopoeic consciousness' (i.e. invoking God as the concentration of human values) is mistaken. This mythopoeic consciousness is itself the product of the alienation of labour. For Marx, alienated labour is the result of the division of labour.


Fifth, Marx sees the division of labour is a more or less inevitable feature of history as it is the result of technical innovation.


Sixth, alienation of labour occurs because people are subjugated by their own works which have become independent things. This is clearest in the commodity character of products.


Seventh, Marx asserts that alienation gives rise to private property and to political institutions that are mediated by the state. Individuals become isolated as the collective is enslaved by its own products.


Eight, alienation of labour cannot be overcome by thought but requires a change in productive relations.


Ninth, Marx regards history to the present as a process of degredation that has reached its nadir in capitalism and not as the progress of freedom as Hegel argued. However, this does not mean going back to a lost past but rather the striving towards an new future.


Tenth, Marx sees communism as the way to transcend alienation and to restore people's control over their own work and the structures that they create.


Eleventh, communism destroys the distinction between private and public life and between civil society and the state. It does away with political institutions, class, private property etc. without depriving people of their individuality as it allows people to be truly creative. People can determine their own development free from exploitation.


Twelth, communism is not an ideal state that could be invoked at any stage of history, but evolves historically out of capitalism, which itself represents the maximum of dehumanisation.


Thirteenth, the proletariat, aware of their situation, consciously act to bring about communism through revolution as they represent the epitome of dehumanisation. The interest of the proletariat (and of no other class) coincides with the needs of humanity as a whole. The alienation of labour has operated through history to produce the working class. The working class is the agent of the destruction of alienated labour.

In his later work, Marx developed these about the nature and working of capitalism which can be briefly summarised as follows: First, capitalist accumulation is the result of exploitation of the workers by owners of capital who appropriate the surplus value of labour. Second, capitalism contains the seed of its own demise as more capitalisation is likely to lead to less labour input and a reduced potential for capiatlist appropriation of surplus value. Third, capitalism is legitimated through bourgeois ideology which makes it appear that capitalism is both natural and in the interests of the exploited.


Kolakowski (1978), in Chapter 9 ‘Recapitulation’, maintains that from 1843 Marx developed his ideas consistently and that his thought had the following basic tenets by 1846:


1. From Hegel, Marx asked ‘how is man to be reconciled with himself and with the world?’ Marx rejected Hegel’s idealism, embodied in the Spirit i.e that mind eventually comes to recognise the world as an exteriorization of itself. Instead, following Feuerbach, Marx asserts the ‘earthly reality of man’ as the point of departure. ‘For man, the root is man himself’—the basic reality self-derived and self-justified.

2. Like Hegel, Marx looks forward to ‘man’s final reconciliation with the world, himself and others’. Against Hegel, Marx does not see such reconciliation in terms of the recognition of being as a product of self-knowledge.

With Feuerbach, Marx sees the reconciliation in terms of a recognition, by people, of the sources of alienation and an overcoming of the alienation.

He rejects the Young Hegelian view that negative self-knowledge will always conflict with an unresponsive world. Rather, Marx envisages a de-alienated state in which ‘man will affirm himself in a world of his own creation’. On alienation, however, Marx disagrees with Feuerbach who argues that alienation results from the mythopoeic consciousness which makes God the concentration of human values. Marx maintains that this mythopoeic consciousness is itself the product of the alienation of labour.

3. For Marx, alienated labour is the result of the division of labour. The division of labour is an inevitable feature of history as it is the result of technical innovation.

Marx disagrees with Feuerbach that alienation is simply destructive and inhuman.

Marx agrees with Hegel that alienation is a condition of the future all-round development of ‘mankind’. However, Marx disagrees with Hegel about the progress of human history. Hegel regards history to the present as the progressive conquest of freedom. Marx regards history to the present as a process of degredation that has reached its nadir in capitalism.

For Marx the resolution is not a process of going back to a lost past but a present suffering towards the re-conquest of humanity.

4. For Marx, alienation means the subjugation of people by their own works which have assumed the guise of independent things. Marx identifies the commodity character of products and argues that the effect the social processes of exchange have is of regulation by factors operating independently of human will (similar to natural laws). Marx asserts that alienation gives rise to private property and to political institutions. The state creates a fictitious community (due to lack of real community). Individuals become isolated as the collective is enslaved by its own products.

5. Alienation can only be cured by removing the causes. It cannot be overcome by thought. Marx is opposed to metaphysical and epistemological questions that offer the false hope of attaining some kind of absolute beyond practical reality. For Marx, thought is grounded in practical activity, it is governed by practical needs (even if it is obscured by false consciousness).

6. Communism, for Marx, is the transcendence of alienation. Communism destroys the distinction between private and public life; between civil society and the state. It does away with political institutions, class, private property etc. Communism destroys the ‘power of objectified relations over human beings’, restores peoples’ control over their own work, and bridges the gulf between humanity and nature. Communism turns philosophy into reality, and by so doing abolishes it.

7. Communism does not deprive people of their individuality but (due to technical progress which obviates problems of physical existence) allows people to be truly creative. People can determine their own development free from the enslavement of material forces and the exploitation and political pressure that goes with such enslavement. Under communism, people can mould their own destiny.

8. Communism is not an ideal state that could be invoked at any stage of history, but evolves historically out of capitalism which itself represents the maximum of dehumanisation. It is through the proletariat (who represent the epitome of dehumanisation) that a revolutionary upheaval will be invoked. The interest of the proletariat (and of no other class) coincides with the needs of humanity as a whole. The alienation of labour has operated through history to produce the working class. The working class is the agent of the destruction of alienation.

9. The proletariat is not a passive agent of history but achieves its destiny consciously, aware of its unique situation. By understanding its own position the proletariat understands the world and in so doing sets about changing it. The proletariat does not simply assimilate past history (as Hegel would suggest) but directs attention towards a transformation of the future. Nor does it simply negate the existing order (as Fichte and the Young Hegelians suggest), rather it consciously and freely acts on its historical situation, thereby combining historical necessity and freedom.

10. The shift to communism is a long convulsive process, it is not simply the abolition of private property. It can only occur in a situation of advanced technical development and a world market.

Kolakowski maintains that Marx developed these ideas to the last pages of Capital without departing from them. Engels, on the other hand, shifted towards a theory which subjects humanity to the general laws of nature and makes human history a particularization of those laws. In so doing he abandoned the idea of the ‘philosophy of praxis’ and departed from the conception of man as ‘the root’ and of the humanization of nature. Engels, then, created a completely new version of Marxist philosophy.


Marx's epistemological break

The notion of epistemological break derives from Lenin who had called for studies of abstract-theoretical questions that should be distinct from specific 'concrete historical' ones, although the former must spring from the historical world if it is to be conceptualised in a materialist framework. The notion has been applied to Marx's own work, especially by Marxist structuralists who radically dispense with the theory-history harmony.


They assert that Marx had argued that, in developing revolutionary praxis, one must grasp the structural relations existing in bourgeois society. He had no interest in naive historism and argued that structural relations be exposed through a process of deconstruction of ostensive relations by focusing on more fundamental units of analysis than those that appeared on the surface of social relations. Hence Marx's deconstruction of social relations under capitalism by focusing on commodity relations and the subsequent dialectical reconstitution of the nature of capitalism.


The long-running dispute about the shift or break in the development of Marx's epistemology derives from Althusser's analysis.


Althusser posits an epistemological break in Marx as a means of distinguishing Marxist science of historical materialism from ideological philosophies that claim Marx as projenitor. Althusser's aim, simply put, is to locate an 'epistemological break' in Marx's intellectual career such that those texts produced before the break can be designated works of theoretical ideology, whilst those after it are governed by the newly founded scientific problematic.


Althusser's argument is basically as follows. Marx, in the 1844 Manuscripts, adopts the Feuerbachian materialist inversion of Hegel. However, he takes it further in works from 1845 onwards, and thus critiques Feuerbach as well. In the 1844 Manuscripts, Marx applies Feuerbach's approach to the field of political economy. Feuerbach had applied his materialist critique of Hegel to religious and philosophical ideology, inverting Hegel's view that the Absolute Spirit (or consciousness) is the subject of historical processes and material life a mere 'predicate' or appearance. The inversion Feuerbach proposed was that humans are the historical subject whilst conscious life (or the spiritual) is itself the historical evolution of matter.


In 1845, in the Theses on Feuerbach, Marx (and Engels) reject the essentialism of Feuerbach's approach. In the sixth thesis they argue that Feuerbach resolves the essence of religion into the essence of man. Marx and Engels reject this as it implies a historically transcendent essence of humanity which is not historically specific. For Marx and Engels, the subject of history is the 'historically fleeting 'ensemble of social relations' in any phase of history'. 'In the course of their critique of Feuerbach in the German Ideology, Marx and Engels repeatedly establish their distance from this philosophical scheme for thinking about the phases of human history.


Marx's anti-positivism

Marx's theory of the nature and production of knowledge is anti-positivistic. Marx demands that science should be critical. In this he differs from positivist approaches.


Marx was opposed to a study of society borrowing directly the positivist methods of the natural sciences. There are two basic reasons for this.


First, positivistic science attempted to abstract the apparent world and construct conceptual arrangements that provided explanations at the level of 'objective' manifestation. Ultimately this was directed to constructing laws of society. Marx, however, argued that there are no permanent laws to be sought, society is transitional. When Marx talks of 'laws' he is using a rhetorical device and is merely referring to developments of the mode of production within a given epoch or type of system. Such laws do not transcend the qualitative changes from one system to another. Furthermore, such positivistic objectivations of the social world resulted in an explanation dependent upon characteristics dictated by the prevailing (bourgeois) conditions of production. Thus, for Marx, scientism is a conservative doctrine as it confuses the immediate with the eternal.


Second, the positive view of science does not allow it to discover differences between the given and the essences of any shape or form. It does not even begin to search for such differences. It believes science is a classification of facts that adds nothing to their content. It is assumed by positivists that the analytic procedures of concept formation and theory formation do not themselves change the nature of observed 'reality'. The assumption is that abstractions add nothing to the empirically derived 'facts'. In other words, 'facts' are directly observable in the same manner to different scientists. At its most naive, positivism adopts a direct realist view of the world in which reality is directly observable and independent of interpretive processes. Marx, rejects this positivist view of the scientific process and argues that 'scientific truth' is always paradox if judged by everyday experience, which catches on the elusive appearance of things, and that all science would be superfluous if the 'manifest form and the essence of things directly coincided.


Thus, for Marx, in the process of elaborating the nature of the physical and social world, science is not simply set the task of explaining surface appearances. Science transcended the world of appearances. Science must probe beneath surface relations and uncover fundamental relationships.


For example, Marx's analysis in Capital attempts to get to the meaning behind the categories used by the political economists of the time. He constantly sought the 'inner connections' or structure of the phenomena under investigation. Such a search is foreign to positivism. Marx wanted more than the organisation of 'facts', he wanted to reveal the esential nature of the social world that lay beneath the world of appearances.


This process of uncovering is essentially dialectical.


One manifestation of this difference in perspective between Marx and positivists is the focus upon ideology, positivism does not engage ideology while Marx regards an analysis of ideology as essential.

Paul Thomas (1976) provided the following demolition of the view, by some commentators, that Marx was a positivist. Thomas maintains that the positivist attribution has no credibility. Thomas points to several aspects of Marx's work which have been taken as indicative of positivism and shows how such an assessment is based on misunderstanding and misconstrual. There are many notions of positivism, but all seem to include the following:

a. The world can only be apprehended directly/empirically via the senses

b. The procedures of natural science are applicable to the social world, i.e. the social world is ammenable to causal laws (and cumulative theorising/testing etc).

c. Social science should be value free.

Marx is 'accused' of being a positivist for various reasons:

1. Scientific socialism

2. Iron laws

3. Economic Determinism

However Marx is fundamentally opposed to positivism and his methodology and theory of knowledge production are in no way positivistic: Marx never used the term 'scientific socialism'. Marx did not adopt Engels 'dialectics of nature' and its rigid (intrinsic) determinism. Marx did not use the term 'dialectics' in relation to his own thought but rather adopted a dialectical method. Determinism has been applied to Marx, not extracted from his work. 'Iron laws' are used, by Marx, as polemical device. He disclaimed the possibility of permanent laws: 'laws' only operate within a particular epoch, scientism is thus conservative, it encumbers transcending a particular milieu/social system. Marx saw no inevitability of progress to socialism: a function only of praxis 'men make own history but don't have control over it'. Marx was a communist not a socialist. Marx was opposed to 'scientism', as it fails to reach essentials. Marx was opposed to Comte, regarded positivism as naive: if the world is really is as it appears then no need of science. Positivism fails to distinguish the difference between essential and the given.


See also Harvey Review of Ruben 1977


Marx's approach to ideology

For Marx, ideology is the instrument by which the contradictory social reality is made bearable.


Marx's materialist, dialectical analysis emphasised that history is a social product. However, history is not simply made by the will of the people. Rather, social conditions mediate history. The conscious reflective activities of people (their praxis) produces social conditions that become independent of their will. This results in a constitution of social reality as a contradictory reality. Ideology serves to make this contradictory reality acceptable.


There are two important point here. First, contradictions in reality do not arise simply as a result of human practice inevitably crystallising itself into objective social relations and structures. Contradictions arise because of the lack of control that people have over the objective power that is forged by the creation of these social constructs. Instead of people controlling the structures, the structures end up controlling people. Central to this contradictory reality is the reproductive practice manifested in the division of labour and the consequent dominant/dominated class division.


Ideology provides distorted solutions in the mind to the problems created by the contradictory reality and which cannot be solved in practice. Ideology is, therefore, the necessary projection in consciousness of peoples' practical inabilities


Second, this does not mean that Marx regarded ideology as false consciousness. The idealist notion that ideology was nothing more than a distorting invention that resided entirely in ideas was anathama to Marx. Marx insisted that ideas are embedded in social relations and thus in material conditions. Ideology cannot simply be 'thought away'. Ideology negates and conceals contradictions that are not overcome in practice, ideology thus inverts reality. Hiowever, this is not simply an arbitrary inversion produced by consciousness nor is it a propogandistic device designed to distort and thereby legitimate social relations. Ideology may be illusory but is grounded in practical activity, notably the relations of production. Ideology then, for Marx, does not deceive a passive consciousness but arises from practice and can only be overcome by changes in the social relations that give rise to it. In short, Marx has a negative view of ideology.


Ideology serves the interests of the dominant class, it is not only the result of the division of labour but also a condition for the functioning and reproduction of the system of class domination. Ideology, by concealing class relations, legitimises the class structure.


Marx's historical materialist methodology


Marx's historical materialist methodology is both historical (diachronic) and structural (synchronic).


Marx saw science as the basis for the understanding of the social world arrived at through a process of deconstruction and reconstruction, in which the part is dialectically related to the whole. Marx's methodology was to 'appropriate the material in detail, analyse its different forms and development, and trace their inner link'.


This methodology is distinct from a positivistic notion of science. It is unrestricted by ontological assumptions about 'matter' and the nature of 'matter'. It differs too, from phenomenological approaches in relating its essentialist analysis to the social totality.


Historical analysis

History was an essential aspect of Marx's work and he characterised his work as the 'conscious product of historical movement'. However, this does not mean that knowledge simply coincides with history as constructed, nor does it mean that knowledge can be uncovered by merely chronologically tracing its historical process. Marx does not simply provide an analysis based on narrative history, rather he uses a constructed history.


Marx constructs history as follows. He uses dialectical analysis which involves a totalistic approach. The dialectical process developed by Marx involves two essential elements, the grounding of a generalised theory in material history and the exposure of the essential nature of structural relations which manifest themselves historically. Thus, in order to comprehend the nature of capitalist relations of production it was necessary for Marx to get at the essential nature of capital, rather than simply present its historical origin. The essential nature is manifested structurally, which requires a totalistic perspective.


In doing history, Marx was not concerned with rational reconstruction per se. The aim was not an internalist history but rather to locate historical detail in the context of social and economic relations. This involved an analysis of ideological forms and the impact of social structural relations on the development of knowledge.


Essentially, Marx starts out from an analysis of structure, critically deconstructs it, examines it to assess its ideological underpinnings, and then 'logically' constructs the history from the totalistic perspective.


This dyachronic analysis tends to concentrate on the evolution of specific concepts within the structural whole, the way certain elements develop their relations with other elements, rather than on the complex totality per se. Thus Marx is concerned, for example, to show how the division of labour has manifested itself diachronically, rather than how bourgeois economy emerged from feudalism. This diachronic analysis, however, is constructed using highly generalised material.


Marx is not concerned with the particular detail of narrative history. He discounts the need to embrace an inductivist approach to theorising from historical instance. Indeed, he accepts that such inductivism is unlikely to generate a useful theory. First, because such historical analysis is too specific and ungeneralisable, and second, because inductivism lacks an adeqate theoretical base, grounded as it is in a perspective which assumes the validity of the observational base. Inductivism ignores the theory laden nature of observation, Marx, on the other hand, was well aware of the superficiality of 'reality', its ideological manifestations, and the consequent mediation of history.


Marx approach to history was to focus on immanent developments, shelving particular details which may have served to clutter the analysis. The logic of the essential frame that resulted from the analysis of the structure is primary in the historical reconstruction. Marx's approach to history is one that resembles a Weltanschauung historicism; but one mediated by a synchronic analysis of the structural whole to which the history ultimately pertains, i.e. a structural historicism. The approach requires, as Marx argues, that the present be grasped and the past interpreted on the basis of it. He is, therefore, clearly not interested in historicalist mediation but similarly he disassociates himself from Weltanschauung, especially utopian, historicism. Marx is able to do this because he denies a pre-formed Weltanschauung, the present structure to which his historicism is aimed is dialectically constituted through a synchronic analysis of an historically specific system.


Critiques of Marx's historical materialist approach

There is considerable debate as to the extent to which Marx proposes a historical materialist or dialectical materialist approach. There is, however, growing support for the view that Marx adopted a method that was both structural-analytic and historical-genetic. However, there is disagreement on the relative importance of each and this has been reflected in the historicist versus structuralist debate in Marxism concerning the role and nature of Marx's historical materialism.

In a critique of historical materialism, Giddens (1981), in arguing that historical materialism cannot be adequately reconstituted for the twentieth century as some Marxists would like, proposed that historical materialism is fundamental to Marxism and that its evident contemporary inadequacies requires that Marxism be rethought.

Ashley (1982), in addressing this question goes further than Giddens to argue that social evolutionism is essential to Marxism and to historical materialism, such that if it were removed 'what is left is so mutilated as to be almost unrecognisable'. (Ashley, 1982, p. 89).

In this respect Ashley reflects earlier concerns of Lukacs, Gramsci and Goldman. Hirst, on the contrary, disagrees and, following an Althusserian line of debate, sees historical materialism bound up in the earlier work of Marx which 'matured' into the dialectical materialism of Capital. (see An Outline Marx’s Methodology with reference to Capital)

Shaw (1978) attempted an analysis of Marx's historical materialism from a position that tried to avoid identity with either side. He argued that historical materialism is one aspect of Marx's conceptual cabinet which has received little critical evaluation and analysis. Shaw placed it alongside other elements of Marx's thought (his economics, dialectics, theory of alienation) and makes no claims that it is central to Marxian theory. (Dialectical materialism, for example, is regarded as another important element, but one which has been widely discussed).

Historical materialism, for Shaw, is a pseudo-scientific theory of history and is evaluated, by him, on that basis. This, Shaw argued, is how Marx saw it and would expect it to be evaluated.

Curiously, however, Shaw takes no note of how Marx saw science and proceeds to evaluate Marx's historical materialism as an internalist critique of science ,which is a conflation of Kuhnian paradigm analysis and Lakatosian research programmes. The result is that historical materialism is shown to fail the test of being a scientific theory even by 'Lakatos' relaxed standards', but nonetheless, it endures because there is 'no real rival theory of history' and one is in the 'predicament of being stuck with this apparently deteriorating paradigm'. (Shaw, 1978, p 167).


Schmidt (1981) and Zeleny (1980) argue that Marx adopted a non-bourgeois materialism which involved a historicist and a structuralist methodology when developing his thesis on the nature of capitalist relations of production.


See Harvey Review of Schmidt 1981

Structural analysis

What Marx's methodology involves is the following. Focussing on the structural totality and critically reflecting on its essential nature as a synchronic entity. The totality (e,g, in Capital the bourgeois relations of production) is taken initially as an existant whole. This structure presents itself as natural, that is, it is ideologically constituted. The critical analysis of the structure must therefore go beyond the surface appearances and lay bear the essential nature of the relationships that are embedded in the structure. This critique ostensively begins by fixing on the essential unit of the structural relationships and decomposing it. The fundamental unit must be broken down until its essential nature is revealed. The structure is then reconstituted using this essentialised construct.


Thus, for example, in Capital the fundamental unit of analysis of bourgeois relations of production is the commodity. Marx shows that the concept of commodity involves something other than the object in itself, it embodies relationships between people. With this as base, Marx reconstituted the nature of bourgeois economy. While the essential nature of bourgeois economy is thereby exposed in general abstract or logical terms, the result is not a metaphysical abstraction. On the contrary, it is grounded in material history. The analysis is historically specific not a timeless, abstract, normative speculation.


Historical materialism thus synchronically analyses an historically specific system. The methodology may, in short, be described as structuralist historicism. The dialectical deconstituting-reconstituting analysis embodied in it involves a shuttling backwards and forwards between structure and unit and, with structural exposition as orienting principle, shuttling between past and present.


The dialectical process involves a breakdown of conceptual structures thus permitting the confrontation with ideology. By laying bear the essential nature of social relations it potentially transcends (prevailing) ideology and demonstrates the transititory nature of historical structures (which weakens their claims to legitimacy embedded in ideology).


The choice of fundamental unit as a basis for deconstructive analysis is not arbitrary. It is determined initially by reflective thought that shuttles backward and forward between the part and the whole, the structure and its history. The unit of anlysis is itself mediated. There is nothing preordained about how 'it will turn out'. (only as Marx deconstructed commodities did the fundamental nature of the objectivation of relationships between people emerge with its far-reaching connotations). The analysis of the nature of the 'fundamental unit' and its relationships with other elements of the structure itself is developed dialectically.


While the fundamental unit remains throughout, it does not prejudge the outcome, this is because its nature is mediated. The working through of the analysis itself mediates the units of analysis.


See also An Outline Marx’s Methodology with reference to Capital.



analytical review

BBC (2014) sums up Marx's life and conribution thus:

Karl Marx (1818 - 1883): A hugely influential revolutionary thinker and philosopher, Marx did not live to see his ideas carried out in his own lifetime, but his writings formed the theoretical base for modern international communism.

Karl Heinrich Marx was born on 5 May 1818 in Trier in western German, the son of a successful Jewish lawyer. Marx studied law in Bonn and Berlin, but was also introduced to the ideas of Hegel and Feuerbach. In 1841, he received a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Jena. In 1843, after a short spell as editor of a liberal newspaper in Cologne, Marx and his wife Jenny moved to Paris, a hotbed of radical thought. There he became a revolutionary communist and befriended his life long collaborator, Friedrich Engels. Expelled from France, Marx spent two years in Brussels, where his partnership with Engels intensified. They co-authored the pamphlet 'The Communist Manifesto' which was published in 1848 and asserted that all human history had been based on class struggles, but that these would ultimately disappear with the victory of the proletariat.

In 1849, Marx moved to London, where he was to spend the remainder of his life. For a number of years, his family lived in poverty but the wealthier Engels was able to support them to an increasing extent. Gradually, Marx emerged from his political and spiritual isolation and produced his most important body of work, 'Das Kapital'. The first volume of this 'bible of the working class' was published in his lifetime, while the remaining volumes were edited by Engels after his friend's death.

In his final years, Karl Marx was in creative and physical decline. He spent time at health spas and was deeply distressed by the death of his wife, in 1881, and one of his daughters. He died on 14 March 1883 and was buried at Highgate Cemetery in London.


Stephen Kreis (2000, 2008), writing in the History Guide, provides an overview including changes in Marx's thinking and his main publications. The first and last paragraphs are thus:

The philosopher, social scientist, historian and revolutionary, Karl Marx, is without a doubt the most influential socialist thinker to emerge in the 19th century. Although he was largely ignored by scholars in his own lifetime, his social, economic and political ideas gained rapid acceptance in the socialist movement after his death in 1883. Until quite recently almost half the population of the world lived under regimes that claim to be Marxist. This very success, however, has meant that the original ideas of Marx have often been modified and his meanings adapted to a great variety of political circumstances. In addition, the fact that Marx delayed publication of many of his writings meant that is been only recently that scholars had the opportunity to appreciate Marx's intellectual stature...

Marx's contribution to our understanding of society has been enormous. His thought is not the comprehensive system evolved by some of his followers under the name of dialectical materialism. The very dialectical nature of his approach meant that it was usually tentative and open-ended. There was also the tension between Marx the political activist and Marx the student of political economy. Many of his expectations about the future course of the revolutionary movement have, so far, failed to materialize. However, his stress on the economic factor in society and his analysis of the class structure in class conflict have had an enormous influence on history, sociology, and study of human culture.

associated issues

Marx's empirical sources

Bogdanovic (1986) offered the following analysis of Marx's empirical sources.


Marx used a wide variety of empirical sources. He 'began' with concrete empirical facts. He was uninhibited methodologically, using any available method to gather and classify facts. He made use of documents and statistics. The latter he approached 'with responsibility' and critically. He 'used the historical comparative method'. Overall, he was 'an excellent observer'. Indeed, 'It is enough just to turn over the pages of Capital to see how much contemporary empirical sociology has lost and has remained onesided because it did not know to look in Marx's works for both a model of method and theory for its research' (Korac, 1962, p. 275).

Marx argued that the model of exposition is different from the method of research. The dialectical process is a unique process of the aquirement of knowledge.

Research, for Marx, required approaching the subject matter in detail, analysing its different forms of development and finding its internal connections. Only then can the 'real' state of affairs be revealed.

Indicative of Marx's concern to found his theory on empirical evidence is, as Bogdanovich (1986, p. 92) points out, the letter to N. F. Danielson in which Marx points out that the delay in publishing the second volume of Capital in Germany suits him because it gives time for the crisis in England to reach its peak.

Marx undertakes comparative study, for example, comparing the length of working week and the exhaustion of workers in England, France, Belgium, Switzerland, Austria and Russia. The comparison is founded on an analysis of factory legislature, various Parliamentary reports as well as medical reports.

In widening his comparisons from Western Europe to America and Russia, Marx undertook detailed examinations of the economic history of each country, as their development was the consequence of essentially different historical conditions to that of Western Europe.

In the 'Preface' to the first (German) edition of Capital (25th July 1867) Marx indicated in broad terms his empirical sources

[The following quotes and details direct from English edition: as quoted in Bogdanovic]

The social statistics of Germany and the rest of Continental Western Europe are, in comparison with those of England, wretchedly compiled. But they raise the veil just enough to let us catch a glimpse of the Medusa head behind it. We should be appalled at the state of things at home, if, as in England, our governments and parliaments appointed periodically commissions of enquiry into economic conditions; if these commisions were armed with the same plenary powers to get at the truth; if it was possible to find for this purpose men as competent, as free from partisanship and respect of persons as are the English factory-inspectors, her medical reporters on public health, her commisions of enquiry into the exploitation of women and children, into housing and food. (Marx, [1887] 1977, p. 20)

The various parliamentary and official reports used by Marx are listed at the end of each volume of Capital. In the first volume he cites thirty reports of H.M. Inspectors of Factories made between 1841 and 1867; five reports of the Medical Officer of the Privy Council on public health (between 1860 and 1865); reports of select committees on the adulteration of food (1855); on the adulteration of bread (1855); on mines (1866); Royal Commissions on Mines (1864) and on Railways (1867); reports of select committees on the Banking Acts (1858) and the Corn Laws (1813–14); the House of Lords Select Committee's reports on The State and Growth of Commerce and Consumption of Grains and all laws relating thereto (1814-15); the report of the Commissioners on Transportation and Penal Servitude (1863); the Inquiry Commission report on the employment of children in factories (1833); six reports of the commisioners on the employment of children in unregulated manufacture and trades (1863–1867); report by Poor Law Inspectors on wages of agricultural labourers in Dublin (1870) and in Ireland as a whole (1862); the report on the grievances of journeymen bakers (1862); the report of the committee on the baking trade in Ireland (1861); Inland Revenue Reports for 1860 and 1866; the report of the Social Science Congress in Edinburgh (1863); Report of the Committee of the Master Spinner's amd Manufacturers Defence Fund' (1854); the report of the Registrar General on births, deaths and marriages in England (October, 1861). Finally he cites 'Correspondence with Her Majesty's Missions Abroad regarding Industrial Questions and Trades Unions. 1867' and Hansard.

These reports were extensive, were the result of questionnaire research, observation and medical practice. They usually included statistical material as well as vivid descriptions of social conditions. Marx addressed these reports in a critical manner. The reports of the Factory Inspectors, for Marx, gave 'continuous and official statistics on the wolfish hunger of capital for the surplus of labour' (quoted in Bogdanovich, 1986, p. 101)

In addition Marx used the 1861 Census for England and Wales; statistical abstracts (1861 and 1866); various agricultural statistics for Ireland (1860 and 1867); official 'Miscellaneous Statistics'; and Parliamentary Returns (1839, 1850, 1856, 1862) .

He makes use of statistical sources to point out changes and relationships. When he doesn't have adequate statistics he says so. For example, the lack of suitable statistics to illustrate the concentration of agricultural holdings in England, and so restricts his empirical analysis to ten countries for which such information is available between 1851 and 1861. Marx criticised the inadequacies in the collection of statistics. For example, the 'surprising' fall in the number of children under thirteen years of age employed, which was a result of surgeons increasing the ages of children 'to suit the greed of capitalists'. Marx also criticised the inconsistencies and inadequacies in the conceptualisation of statistical measures, and the misleading application of statistics. An example of the latter is the use of absolute wage levels to show how the workers are better off, whereas Marx argues that the cost of living (for example by 20 per cent between 1860 and 1862) has far exceeded wage rises and thus workers were worse off.

Marx referred to various acts and statutes especially the Factory Regulation Acts, 1933, 1859, 1867 and 1878, which were, for Marx an important source of the evolving relations between labour and capital. Other legislation he used directly were the Statutes of Labourers (1349, 1496) and Statutes of Massachusetts.

Besides these reports Marx lists thirty three different British and overseas newspapers and periodicals as sources; these include The Times, Morning Star, Spectator, Economist, Neue Rheinische Zeitung, Deutsch-Franzosische Jahrbucher, New York Daily Tribune, and Sankt-Peterburgskie Viedomosti. In general, he collected data and opinions from friends abroad in order to effect comparitive analyses between Britain and other parts of the world.

Bogdanovich (1986, p. 96) says that Marx most fully used these sources in the chapters in which he analysed the 'quickest and most far-reaching consequences of the capitalist mode of production—on the position of the producers themselves in their social function and outside of it—in the domain of housing and food— therefore the different forms and levels of exploitation'.

In particular he analysed the factory system and the working day.

To reinforce Marx's concern with empirical data, Bogdanovich (1986, p. 108) reminds us of his draft proposal to the First International for the collection of statistica world wide by workers. Such statistics should be on the type of production and the structure of employees according to sex, age and occupation, on the length of the working day, shifts, breaks, wages, physical and moral conditions as well as the health conditions of workers, etc.

Marx used one source to complement another and rarely, if ever, relied on a single source.

related areas

See also




reflection theory



Researching the Real World Section

Critical Social Research Section 2.2

Notes on The German Ideology

Tetley lecture notes 1985

Harvey Review of Schmidt 1981

Harvey Review of Ruben 1977


Ashley, D., 1982, 'Historical materialism and social evolutionism', Theory, Culture and Society, 1(2), pp. 89–92.

BBC, 2014, History: Karl Marx (1818–1883), available at, accessed 9 June 2019.

Bogdanovic, M., 1986, 'Empirical Basis in Marx's Study of Society', Sociologija, Special Issue on 11th World Congress of Sociology, New Delhi, 18th–23rd August 1986.

Korac, V., 1962, Kultura. Beograd.

Giddens, A., 1981, A Contemporary Critique of Historical Materialism, volume 1, University of California Press.

Kolakowski, L., 1978, Main Currents of Marxism: Its rise growth and dissolution.Volume 1, The Founders. translated by P.S. Falla, Oxford, Oxford University Press, pp. 177–81, available at, accessed 4 June 2013, page not available 22 December 2016.

Kreiss, S., 2000, 2008 Karl Marx, 1818–1883, in The History Guide, Lectures on Modern European Intellectual History, available at, accessed 9 June 2019.

Marx, K., [1887] Capital. Moscow, Progress Publishers.

Schmidt, A., 1981, History and Structure: An Essay on Hegelian Marxist and Structuralist Theories of History. Cambridge, Mass., Boston, MIT.

Shaw, W.H., 1978, Marx's Theory of History. Stanford University Press.

Thomas, P., 1976, 'Marx and science', Political Studies, 24 (March).

Zeleny, J., 1980, The Logic of Marx. Oxford, Blackwell. (Orig. pub. East Berlin, 1968).

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