5.1.1 Concepts of Socialism

Étienne Schmitt

Historical Materialism

The materialist conception of history (or historical materialism) is at the core of Karl Marx’s socialism. Historical materialism is based on Hegel’s dialectics, though it rejects his idealism. According to Karl Marx, ideas or beliefs do not determine human beings but rather their material condition. Thus, changes in the modes of production: slavery, feudalism, then capitalism, have generated struggles between a dominant class that monopolize the production means and a dominated class that are deprived of these means.

Karl Marx conceives that the value of a good is determined by the material cost of production and the work to produce it; however, the dominant class owns the production means. In the capitalist era, production means are not just tools but a form of capital that corrupts the value of a good because capital is no longer related to the value of production and is instead based on the value of exchange. This exchange value includes the remuneration of capital. To remunerate itself, capital attributes to itself surplus value i.e., the difference between the value added by the worker to the good and the value of the workforce for its production. The holding of capital is therefore the exploitation of the labor of others.

Class Struggle: Proletariat and Bourgeoisie

Karl Marx calls the dominant class the “bourgeoisie” and the dominated class the “proletariat” in the capitalist era. With his materialist conception of history (see historical materialism), he states that the constant search for profit leads to the accumulation of capital, which causes the impoverishment of the proletariat. The proletariat, however, is not only exploited by the bourgeoisie; rather, it is alienated. The state, the nation, religions, and many collective values have been established to protect the domination of the capitalist class. At the end of The Manifesto of the Communist Party(pdf) (1848/1969), in speaking about a “class struggle”, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote: “Working Men of All Countries, Unite!” to rally the proletariat against the bourgeoisie. Because of the domination of society and institutions, Karl Marx pleads for a revolution to overthrow the existing system and build a society in which production means are collectivized i.e., a socialist society. According to Karl Marx, to win the class struggle, a transitional step to socialism called “the dictatorship of the proletariat” is mandatory.

To Go Further

Cohen, G. A. (1988). History, labour, and freedom. Oxford University Press.

Honneth, A. (2017). The idea of socialism: Towards a renewal. Polity.

Newman, M. (2005). Socialism: A very short introduction. Oxford University Press.



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Political Ideologies and Worldviews: An Introduction - 2nd Edition Copyright © 2023 by Étienne Schmitt is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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