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Karl Marx


Karl Marx: On Capitalism

By Frank W. Elwell


The forces of production are, strictly speaking, the technology and work patterns that men and women use to exploit their environment to meet their needs. These forces of production are expressed in relationships between men, which are independent of any particular individual and not subject to individual will and purposes. While industrialism would be a particular “force of production,” capitalism would be a particular “relation of production.” By relations of production, Marx means the social relationships people enter into by participation in economic life. The relations of production are the relations men (and women) establish with each other when they utilize existing raw materials and technologies in the pursuit of their production goals.

While Marx begins with the fSocial Evolutionorces of production, he quickly moves to the relations of production that are based on these forces. For Marx, the relations of production are the key to understanding the whole cultural superstructure of society. The relations of production (economic organization) constitute the foundation upon which the whole cultural superstructure of society comes to be erected. Marx gives the relations of production the primary focus in his analysis of social evolution. The forces of production basically set the stage for these relations, and other than this are given little independent treatment by Marx. Problems of modern society are therefore all ascribed to capitalism by Marx and his followers, rather than ascribing some of them to industrialism—a problem we will return to shortly.

According to Marx, men and women are born into societies in which property relations have already been determined. These property relations, in turn, give rise to different social classes. Just as a man cannot choose who is to be his father, so he has not choice as to his class. [Social mobility, though recognized by Marx, plays no role in his analysis.] Once a man is ascribed to a specific class by virtue of his birth, once he has become a feudal lord or a serf, an industrial worker or a capitalist, his behavior is proscribed for him. His attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors are all “determined.” The class role largely defines the man. In the preface to Capital Marx writes: “Here individuals are dealt with only as fact as they are personifications of economic categories, embodiments of particular class-relations and class interests.” Different locations in the class structure lead to different class interests. Such differing interests flow from objective positions in relation to the forces of production. In saying this Marx does not deny the operation of other variables in human behavior; but he concentrates on class roles as primary determinants of that behavior. These class roles influence men whether they are conscious of their class interests or not. Men may well be unaware of their class interests and yet be moved by them, as it were, behind their backs.

The division of labor gives rise to different classes, which leads to differing interests and gives rise to different: political, ethical, philosophical, religious, and ideological views. These differing views express existing class relations and tend either to consolidate or undermine the power and authority of the dominant class. "The ideas of the ruling class are, in every age, the ruling ideas; the class which is the dominant material force in society is at the same time its dominant intellectual force.” For example, the business of America is business. We think naturally inCapitalism these categories. The goal of the economic system is to grow; our goal is to make more money to buy nice things. The point of the educational system is to provide education and training so that young adults can eventually assume their role in the workforce.

"The class which has the means of material production at its disposal has control at the same time over the means of mental production.” This is done through control over the media, educational curricula, grants and such. This is not the result of a conspiracy; rather it is the dominant viewpoint that pervades the culture. Because the dominant class owns and controls the forces of production, the social class in power uses the non-economic institutions to uphold its authority and position. Marx believed that religion, the government, educational systems, and even sports are used by the powerful to maintain the status quo.

Although they are hampered by the ideological dominance of the elite, the oppressed classes can, under certain conditions, generate counter ideologies to combat the ruling classes. These conditions are moments when the existing mode of production is played out; Marx terms these moments “revolutionary.” The social order is often marked by continuous change in the forces of production, that is, technology. Marx argued that every economic system except socialism produces forces that eventually lead to a new economic form. The process begins with the forces of production. At times, the change in technology is so great that it is able to harness “new” forces of nature to satisfy man’s needs. New classes (and interests) based on control of these new forces of production begin to rise. At a certain point, this new class comes into conflict with the old ownership class based on the old forces of production. As a consequence, it sometimes happens that “…the social relations of production are altered, transformed, with the change and development…of the forces of production.”

In the feudal system, for example, the market and factory emerged but were incompatible with the feudal way of life. The market created a professional merchant class, and the factory created a new proletariat (or class of workers). Thus, new inventions and the harnessing of new technologies created tensions within the old institutional arrangements, and new social classes threatened to displace the old ones based on manorial farming. Conflict resulted, and eventually revolution that established a new ruling class based on the new forces of production. A new class structure emerged and an alteration in the division of wealth and power based on new economic forms. Feudalism was replaced by capitalism; land ownership as the dominant form of capital was replaced by factories and the ownership of capital.

Those classes that expeRevolutionct to gain the ascendancy by a change in property relations become revolutionary. When this is the case, representatives of the ascending classes come to perceive existing property relations as a “fetter” upon further development. New social relationships (based upon the new mode of production) begin to develop within older social structures, exacerbating tensions within that structure. New forces of production—based on manufacture and trade—emerged within late European feudal society and allowed the bourgeoisie, which controlled this new mode of production, to challenge the hold of the classes that had dominated the feudal order. 

As this new force of production gained sufficient weight (through technological development and the resulting accumulation of wealth of the ownership class), the bourgeoisie “burst asunder the feudal relations of production” in which this new mode of production first made its appearance. "The economic structure of capitalist society has grown out of the economic structure of feudal society. The dissolution of the latter sets free elements of the former.”

Like feudalism, Marx maintained, capitalism also carries the seeds of its own destruction. It brings into being a class of workers (the proletariat) who have a fundamental antagonism to the capitalist class, and who will eventually band together to overthrow the regime to which they owe their existence. We will get into the evolution of the revolution in a future lecture.

For a more extensive discussion of Marx's theories refer to Macro Social Theory by Frank W. Elwell.  Also see Sociocultural Systems: Principles of Structure and Change to learn how his insights contribute to a more complete understanding of modern societies.


Elwell, F. (2009), Macrosociology: The Study of Sociocultural Systems. Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press.

Elwell, F. (2013), Sociocultural Systems: Principles of Structure and Change. Alberta: Athabasca University Press.

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Marx, K. 1847/1999. The Poverty of Philosophy. Retrieved March 19, 2008, from Marx/Engels Archives

Marx, K. and Engels, F. 1848. The Communist Manifesto. (F. Engels, Trans. and Ed.) Public Domain Books, Kindle Edition, (2005).

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Marx, K. 1964b. Early Writings. (T. B. Bottomore, Trans. and Ed.) New York: McGraw-Hill.


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