Traverro LaVonese Harden

Traverro LaVonese Harden
October 6, 2000
Sociological Theory/Exam 1
The classical theorist whose theoretical approach is most useful in understanding the
nature of the modern world, in particular the United States, is Karl Marx. In justifying this
hypothesis, Marx’s theoretical approach will be described, its usefulness in understanding the
modern world will be indicated, and finally Marx’s approach will be contrasted with the
theoretical approaches of Emile Durkheim and Max Weber.
Karl Marx’s theoretical approach can basically be used to explain the relationship
between a ruling class and oppressed people in almost every society, whether the society is based
on capitalism or not. Through Marx’s approach, the conflict between the elite, ruling class and
the oppressed can be seen through his dialectical model and the effects/consequences of this
conflict can be seen as well. Because anywhere there is a ruling class and the oppressed, the
ruling class, even when the economic system is not based on capitalism, almost always seems to
be the group in society that is better off economically, politically, and socially.
Karl Marx was a radical thinker who held a dialectical model of society as was stated
earlier. In this dialectical model, there exists a status quo or thesis in society. At anytime, an
opposition or antithesis is born, usually from class conflict, which creates a struggle in society
between the two sides. This struggle can exist for days, months, years, or even decades.
However, the struggle produces a change in society resulting in a new status quo or thesis called
a synthesis. This synthesis could be the original thesis before the struggle began, the opposition
as the new thesis, or simply the two sides could combine and become the new thesis in society.
In any case, the opposition’s intent is to lead to some sort of progress in society. Because Marx
was most concerned with the economic or material order in society, the thesis and the antithesis
in this dialectical model are representative of the economic classes that exist in society, the
bourgeoisie (owners of the means of production) and the proletariat (the true laborers of society).
Marx believed that this relationship between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat led to
modern capitalism. Capitalism, Marx believed, was a destructive force in society. Thus, Marx
believed that economic systems based on class distinctions in which one owns the means of
production and therefore can dominate society while the other class consists of the exploited
laborers for the dominant class, would “ultimately self-destruct due to their own internal
contradictions” (Hogan, lecture 8/28). For Marx, the ultimate resolution or synthesis borne out
of the struggle between these two classes would be the end of the dialectic or the creation of a
classless society. However, he also believed that the ruling class or bourgeoisie would not just
give up the means of production or their power, but that the classless society would ultimately
result from revolution, war between the owners of the means of production and the laborers in
society. And for Marx, the hopeful outcome would be the defeat of the bourgeoisie and the
establishment of communism.
No where is Marx’s theoretical approach most useful in providing insights on the social
and economic injustices of the modern world than the United States of America. For Marx, the
fundamental contradiction in society was class. While on the other hand, for Black Americans,
the primary fundamental contradiction in society is racism. Yet, racism is not the only
contradiction, it is the principal contradiction that emerges in education, welfare, and most
importantly for Marx-jobs (economics). However, throughout the history of America, race and
class for Blacks have been synonymous due to the economic and social inequalities that Black
Americans have been forced to endure. Many Black Marxists today believe that the exploited
labor of Black slaves contributed to the thriving of capitalism in America which the ruling class
or white race, particularly slave masters, profited most from. So, not only were these laborers
the lowest economic class of America’s capitalist society, but they were also the lowest class
socially and politically. Even still today, Black Americans, who are the underclass of society
socially and politically are also the underclass or proletariat economically. So, many Black
Americans see capitalism as the destructive force in society that seeks to exploit them
economically, socially, and politically as well as keep them relegated to the underclass.
Therefore, for some Blacks, specifically Marxists, social justice equals the redistribution of
wealth in American society. However, for others such as the late Frantz Fanon, revolution (such
as the Algerian revolution) by Blacks, who he regards as the true proletariat of society, will be
the only solution to a classless and equal society. And for this reason, the revolt during the Civil
Rights Era was an attempt to secure equality economically, socially, and politically for Blacks.
So, as can be seen, Marx’s economic approach to understanding society and conflict, is helpful in
understanding the history of Black Americans as the economic, social, and political underclass of
the United States of America and their struggle with the ruling class or White America.
Now, that the theoretical approach of Karl Marx has been discussed and applied to the
understanding of the modern world, it is important to contrast Marx’s approach with those of
Emile Durkheim and Max Weber and explain why Marx’s approach offers greater insights to the
modern world. First, in contrasting Marx with Durkheim, Marx saw the division of labor society
as a cause for the conflict that took place between the economic classes of society. Marx also
viewed this conflict between the bourgeoisie and the laborers as progressive in that it would
eventually lead to a classless and thus equal society. On the other hand, Durkheim as a
conservative had a functional model of society and saw the division of labor in society as
productive because it produced interdependency between individuals in society. For Durkheim,
this division of labor was essential for a healthy culture. Thus, conflict to Durkheim was quite a
problem and harmful to the collective consciousness in society as well as an indicator of that
something wrong in society as a whole. Secondly, while Durkheim as Ritzer points out, would
have viewed labor unions as destructive to the collective conscious, Marx saw the unionizing of
the proletariat as progressive to their class-consciousness which would lead to the polarization of
the owners and laborers. This polarization could eventually lead to the revolution for a classless
society. So, for Durkheim the division of labor was not for the creation of division in society but
the division was actually meant to unite society through the common bond of labor. Lastly, in
Durkheim functional model of society (as can be seen in Hogan’s overhead model) he viewed
threats to the social structure as external and harmful. Durkheim believed that the social
structure should be strong enough to adapt to this change or threat or change in order to arrive at
the necessary and desirable condition for society. On the other hand, Marx saw the threats in
society as internal in the structure of capitalism itself which would result in the self-destruction
of the capitalist system or revolution. This revolution would serve to create an entirely new
Next, in contrasting Marx with Weber, Weber was a liberal and held an interactional
model of individual society while Marx held a dialectical model. Secondly, Weber was
interested in studying at the organizational level. Thirdly, for Weber bureaucracy was the most
effective system and the “most rational means of exercising authority over humans” (Ritzer, p.
). Fourthly, he saw conflict as normal for society except when it threatened to change society in
the form of type of legitimate authority while Marx saw conflict was productive and progressive.
However, the largest contrast between Marx and Weber is their views on revolution as social
change that Weber was against and their belief in people’s abilities to change the world they live
in into a better place (Ritzer, p. 124).
Lastly, Marx’s theoretical approach offers greater insights into the real relationship
between workers and employees as well as the rulers of a society and the exploited than
Durkheim because it recognizes that economics control the culture and the politics in society.
Durkheim’s approach to the division of labor and the culture in society seems mostly to be an
ideal type; the way things should be regardless of race and class. Marx’s approach gives room
for interpreting factors such as race, religious class, social, and political position in society. And
lastly, Weber’s approach was good that he recognized that stratification in society was
multidimensional (Ritzer, p. 122). However, Weber “did not advocate revolution…wanted to
change society gradually…[and] had little faith in the ability of the masses to create a “better”
society” (Ritzer, p. 124). Here, is where he and Marx differ tremendously. Marx believed in
rapid social change in the form of revolution and believed that the masses were capable of
making a better society. Thus, Weber’s approach is not as useful as Marx in understanding the
conflict in society between the rulers and the oppressed, which leads to political and cultural
oppression. Weber’s approach also does not offer a way that conflict can be resolved, and most
importantly it does not seem to consider class conflict which is evident in all societies.