A General Theory Of Society Such As Marx S Historic Materialism Is Not Feasible Discuss Essay
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Jon Elster concluded his Making Sense of Marx with the claim that ‘It is not possible today, morally or intellectually, to be a Marxist in the traditional sense’ (1985, p.531). ...
In order to determine whether a Theory of Society is feasible, it is necessary to decide what such a theory should be able to
For a large part of the twentieth century many informed commentators regarded the Soviet Union as a highly stable country with little prospect of change and even less of ...
Marx's General Theory continually centres on how the relationships between men are shaped by their relative positions in regard to the means of production and by their differential access to scarce resources. He considered it axiomatic that the potential for class conflict is inherent in every differentiated society, since such a society systematically generates conflicts of interest between persons and groups differentially located within the social structure, and, more particularly, in relation to the means of production. Marx was concerned with the ways in which specific positions in the social structure tended to shape the social experiences of their incumbents and to predispose them to actions oriented to improve their collective fate.
Hence Marx concentrates on the production process as the most fundamental (the most irreducible) of all social relationships. Thus it is not the economy as such which interests Marx ;it is the set of relationships within any society's production process.
It is these relations of production which Marx defines as classes. So a class is a group of individuals who share the same type of relationship to the means of production. There are two essential types of relationship to the production process. An individual can either possess the means of production or not possess them. In short the discussion boils down to the question of whether an individual either owns or is in a relationship of non-ownership to the means of production. These relations of production are twinned with what Marx calls the 'forces of production' to complete production process. The forces of production may be understood as the (various) tools and technologies involved in the production. The theory of Historical Materialism thus says that all actions are motivated by classes trying to better their material situation. So Marx and Engels believed that all previous history had been shaped by this class struggle.
If a General Theory of Society is to fit into the first category of pure scientific thought, based on pure logic, then it must be able to explain all possible eventualities as any exceptions will negate the whole theory. A general theory must not contradict experimental or historical evidence. If such a narrow, positivist view of sociology is accepted, then Marx's general theory cannot be feasible. This is because there are plenty of times in history when people do not seem to act in their material best interest. For example in Confucian China, technologies such as movable type were actually uninvented over time when this was clearly not in the material interests of the owners. Also the British government encouraged by Pitt and Wilberforce outlawed the slave trade when the British dominated this industry and it was clearly not in their best interests.
However, it could still be possible that Marx's theory is correct if sociology is not so narrowly defined as a natural science. Marx could have meant for his general theory only to apply to Industrial Western nations at the time he was writing. If this is the case, then a more detailed analysis of the General Theory is necessary in order to determine its feasibility.
Marx was wrong when he wrote that the above modes of production of human life are the chief motors of human change. This is patently not true. As is argued below people will often act to maximise other things than material wealth. Giddens wrote that 'Human history is not the history of class struggles and is not governed, even in the last instance by the level of development of the forces of production.'
Those who own the means of production use their ownership to exploit the labour of others through appropriation of surplus labour. In ancient society, this was obvious as it was done through slavery. However in capitalist societies, labour is brought and sold at its market value so this exploitation is less obvious. The exploitation does occur because the worker is economically dependent on the owner. This situation is often called asymmetrical reciprocity. Marx thought that it would inevitably lead to massive class conflict between the owners and the workers. The workers would act in their material best interest and confiscate the assets of the owners. Marx believed that the only way to resolve this position was to eliminate class conflict by the elimination of class itself. The theory assumes though that these classes are clearly definable ;that the workers are distinct from the owners. But to what extent is this the case? Today there are owners at almost every level of society and class. Thatcher's stake-holding democracy and the popularity of private pensions have blurred any distinction that can be made between the labourer and the Capitalist. This shows that Marx's assertion that
'Our epoch, the epoch of the bourgeoisie, possesses, however, this distinct feature: it has simplified class antagonisms. Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other -- bourgeoisie and proletariat'
- is completely wrong and this further undermines the feasibility of Historic Materialism.
It is not accepted either that 'The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class
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