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Marx’s Productive Relations and Theory of History

Marx for Sale by Gideon via Flickr

Karl Marx proposed a theory of history in which society apparently progresses through definite stages. The catalyst for change from one stage to the next is a tension between the productive forces (PF) and the productive relations (PR). At least, this is how some have interpreted Marx’s theory.

According to this model, the PR are the social aspects of production in a given society, usually the legal or brute force means of exploiting labor, extracting surplus and maintaining social dominance of the few over the many.

By way of contrast, the PF refers to how a society actually produces commodities.

There is some feedback from the PR to the PF. But the PF determine the PR because the PF are more fundamental to society. In short, the social (PR) depends on the material (PF). And the material (PF) is primary to capital.

I wrote a paper about this back in 1985. The wording is a bit laborious. I was a relatively new university student perfecting a formula for getting good marks, so maybe I was subconsciously mimicking my professor. Over the years I found that grades were usually higher when you wrote like your professors spoke, which was sorta sad but true.

Despite the old-world sentences, the content is good. So I refer you to that for more detailed coverage, especially pp. 2-4:


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Dialectical Materialism – It sounds like “diabolical” but it’s not quite that bad

A portrait of Karl Marx.

A portrait of Karl Marx. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Dialectical Materialism is a school of thought which emerged from Karl Marx‘s theory of history. Marx is said to have turned the Hegelian dialectic on its head. That is, Hegel envisioned the world as spirit unfolding in matter and, by implication, human relations and history.

Marx, on the other hand, did not believe in God nor spirit and saw history as unfolding due to internal tensions within the material, social and conceptual world.  These tensions have often been simplified into a dialectical process. Just how this dialectical process takes shape has been variously discussed by different Marxist commentators.

Like Marx, much of our common understanding of Hegel comes through secondary writers who interpret the original works—sometimes from translations, sometimes not. So we often hear that Hegel believed in a “thesis” and “antithesis” which precede a greater “synthesis.” But apparently Hegel never used these exact terms. Not systematically, anyhow. So this simplification (or handy schema) mostly comes from writers interested in Hegel but not from Hegel himself.

Similarly with Marx, writers like G. A. Cohen make his theory seem quite rational and conceptually ordered. The problem is, other writers interpret Marx differently, so we have to look at Marx’s actual writings to find out what he really meant. I sincerely tried to study Marx with several of his works but found them to be heavy and laborious (which is a nice way of saying “boring”), so must limit myself to talking about people talking about Marx.

If you need proof that a plethora of interpretations of Marx can be found, just follow these links:¹

Michel Foucault

Michel Foucault (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I personally don’t find Marx interesting enough to spend hours trying to pretend I am an expert on him when I’m not. It seems to me that writers like Michel Foucault just smash his clunky arguments. And I don’t really see much point in turning back.

In fairness to Marx, he apparently was a good family man, had a creative sense of humor and really cared about social injustice. I am sure his intentions were good. But any analysis without treating God as an agent will, in my view, fall short. And this applies to both Marx and Foucault.

¹ Thanks to the wonderful, customizable MultiSearch for K-Meleon Browser. I just discovered this and plan to use it to dig up as much stuff as possible for!

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Hegel (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Teleology (Gk: telos = end, purpose; logos = discourse)

Wikipedia begins its entry by saying that teleology is all about a thing’s purpose. So the teleology of the prongs in a fork is that it enables people to eat. The meaning of the prongs is that they facilitate eating.

I’ve never really thought about it that way, because in school the end point of some rational meaning was emphasized whenever teleology was covered.

For me, teleology always meant what a thing is headed for, at which point its ultimate meaning (supposedly) will be found. Teleology was a process. But not just some random, discontinuous process as so many postmoderns suggest.

The joy of Wikipedia is that we can see how lacking some university profs were back in the day. They’d grab some Coles or Sparks notes, and suddenly be an expert in their field.

So in my old 2009 entry at, I said teleology is

the philosophical and theological idea that all of creation is directed toward and unfolds according to a meaningful and rational outcome.

Well, this is partly true, but the story is clearly more complicated, as it usually is in a history of ideas.


In philosophy one of the most popular teleologies is that of G. W. F. Hegel, who presumed a World Spirit guides human history through successive resolutions of contradictions.

According to Hegel, the main characteristic of this unity was that it evolved through and manifested itself in contradiction and negation. Contradiction and negation have a dynamic quality that at every point in each domain of reality—consciousness, history, philosophy, art, nature, society—leads to further development until a rational unity is reached that preserves the contradictions as phases and sub-parts by lifting them up (Aufhebung) to a higher unity.¹


Karl Marx (1818-1883)

Karl Marx (1818-1883) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In social theory, Karl Marx is said to have turned Hegelian theory “on its head” by creating an historical teleology devoid of spirituality, and which predicts the supposed inevitability of Communism.

Marx believed that human history passed and would pass through definite socioeconomic stages:

  1. Primitive Communism
  2. Feudalism
  3. Capitalism
  4. Communism

As we see with 3 and 4, Marx believed that Capitalism inevitably passes into Communism. But again, the actual picture of what’s going on in the world reveals a very different story. A far more complicated one.


In theology different teleologies have been devised. Some see God as an omniscient and external designer to creation. Hence, intelligent design. Others maintain that God is contained within the creation, learning and evolving as events progress through time.

Theologies, of course, are much harder to disprove than social theories. Maybe dead people can see where theories went astray. But down here on earth, we usually have no way to know too much for certain. So some theologians can lay guilt trips on freethinkers or ostracize them, simply for applying their God-given intellects and admitting uncertainty.

Needless to say, I don’t think this a good thing. I suppose a similar dynamic occurs in academic philosophy. For example, if a up and coming Teaching Assistant or Sessional Instructor doesn’t see things like the big cheese in the department, chances are they won’t advance too far. If anyone thinks small p (as in petty) politics don’t figure in academia, they’d probably do well to think again. And let’s not forget big E – economics.²



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Max Weber

Max Weber 1917 at the Lauensteiner Tagung. In ...

Max Weber 1917 at the Lauensteiner Tagung. In background: Ernst Toller (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Max Weber (1864-1920) was a German sociologist. He apparently suffered some kind of mental collapse after confronting his father for abusing his mother. He is said to have recovered through rationality. This might have contributed to Weber’s emphasis on rationality when looking at greater social processes.

Along with Karl Marx and Emile Durkheim, Weber is usually marketed at universities as one of the “big three” in classical sociological theory. So undergraduate students must learn something about his ideas if they wish to obtain a sociology degree from the academic PTB.

We don’t know if Weber was aware of Marx, but Weber’s notions of status and party extend Marxist analysis, which focuses on the ideas of class, ownership and the means of production.

For Weber, social position depends not only on economic class but also on status (social prestige, such as a priest or judge) and party (political power).

Karl Marx (1818-1883)

Karl Marx (1818-1883) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Unlike Marx, whose theory was geared toward social transformation, it’s believed that Weber became frustrated with politics and, in his research, sought only to understand. Knowledge for knowledge sake. However, Weber’s professorial paychecks and all the status that went with them probably didn’t hurt the process.

This is a role that some professors (and students) seem to play. They’re quite content to believe they’re “neutral” until somebody or some political force threatens their professional standing. Then suddenly they’re not neutral at all. In fact, the changing tides of academic politics can make or break a career. There’s nothing neutral about it and there never was, a point that thinkers like Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu rightly pick up on.

Academic politics aside, in studying world religions Weber is usually credited with making lasting contributions to the sociology of religion, particularly with regard to his development of ideal types, his work on charisma and his distinction between ethical vs. exemplary prophets.

Weber’s work on religion was vast in scope. But he relied on translations of original texts, leading some scholars to say that he constructed “grand theory” (which means grandiose theory) based on his misrepresentation of scripture.

Regardless, Weber produced a recognized classic, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, where he argued that the Calvinist view of salvation facilitated the development of Capitalism. According to Weber, the Protestant work ethic sanctioned hard worldly work and the reinvestment of profits as a fulfillment of religious duty. Protestants could be simultaneously wealthy, religious and guiltless—an ethic already present among Jewish minorities throughout Europe.

Painting of Marianne Weber.

Painting of Marianne Weber. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Weber also had important insights about the process of secularization, rationalization, and bureaucratization in modern societies. He pondered how individual freedom would fare amidst not only the wheels of industry, but also among the rows of offices that coordinated them.

Weber married a wealthy distant cousin, an arrangement that set him up nicely so he didn’t have to worry about money. Apparently the marriage was never consummated. His wife, Marianne Weber, née Schnitger, went on to become a feminist author, activist, and organizer of his posthumous publications. She also wrote a biography that shed much light on her famous husband.¹


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The main objective of commercial advertising is to sell goods and services, but achieving this goal is anything but simple.

Social theorists directly or indirectly influenced by Karl Marx usually say that advertising creates a “false” or “illusory” relationship between the consumer and the producer.

Freudian-based sociological analyses suggest that when buying, the consumer enters into a fantasy relationship with a corporate producer. The producer substitutes for a lost or desired father figure (trusted provider of material goods) or mother figure (a source of physiological and emotional security).

Other sociologists note that ads often link products, such as autos, to attractive women or men, as if to imply that buying ensures a glamorous, sexually satisfied life-style. Or the ad may simply sell a certain lifestyle, real or imagined. A good example here is that of bottled water. Scientific studies usually show that tap water is cleaner than bottled water, but athletic or health-minded individuals still buy into the phoney health mythology peddled by some bottled water companies.¹

Neo-Marxist theorists (notable followers of Marx) maintain that media ads contain more meaningful information than media news because ads better depict the cultural biases of a particular era. News, they say, tends to obscure social realities.

This obfuscation of reality in the news is said to occur through:

  • Selectivity – stories that make the headlines are deemed good for ratings and therefore good for profits
  • Modes of reporting – editing and language styles tend to color a story while seeming not to
  • Placement of stories – stories deemed less important and less commercially viable appear at the back of newspapers or somewhere in the middle of the evening news

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Meanwhile some say that ads not only reveal but also contribute to and reinforce prevailing cultural attitudes.

Postmodern thinkers argue that some ads draw on – or conjure up – a mythic past when times apparently were rosy (e.g. the good old days of ‘Mom’s apple pie’ and well-defined ‘family values’). Warm and secure memories, even if based on a kind of fiction, are apparently recaptured by purchasing the advertised product.

Postmoderns also suggest that a new moral synthesis is created by combining real and imaginary images from the past with contemporary motifs. That is, ads help to define a new moral code. An example here might be found in the name of the product “Quick Quaker Oats,” where the positive connotations associated with the word Quaker (old-style integrity, reliability and intelligence) are combined with those of Quick (fast-paced modern society).

However, advertising rarely enters into areas still considered taboo or deviant by the so-called moral majority. Gay and lesbian couples are seldom portrayed in advertising (although more recently the idea of casual lesbian sex is being hinted at), just as couples of different color were at one time excluded from ads.

An aesthetic view of advertising evaluates ads in terms of their artistic value. For instance, moviegoers pay at the box office to see films such as The Best Ads From Around The World. And arguably some of the best new art today comes from graphic artists under contract by government or commercial bodies.

Jungians and some spiritual thinkers might evaluate ads partly in terms of their archetypal and even synchronistic connection to the psychological, social and spiritual world of the potential buyer.

But amidst all this theorizing we’d do well to remember that business or government, being the driving forces behind the ad, primarily want to sell goods and services or promote some information or idea deemed important.

¹ See, for instance,

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A creed (Latin credo: I believe) is a general or precise set of religious beliefs which (apparently) are written in unambiguous language.

The philosopher of religion Thomas McPherson maintains that saying

I believe in God

is quite different from saying

I believe that God exists

The former statement, he argues, avows an attachment, commitment and basic trust in the subject matter. It’s a statement of faith. The latter statement is simply a neutral opinion or, if not perhaps neutral, it’s certainly a cooler, less emotionally involved statement.

By way of contrast, consider

I believe in my country

as compared to

I believe that my country exists

McPherson says these statements are similar to the pair of statements about God’s existence. But he also claims that saying you believe in your country doesn’t entail the same degree of involvement as saying that you believe in God.

McPherson’s claim that saying “I believe in God” reveals the most passionate of all beliefs is questionable. Dialectical materialists forwarding in the work of Karl Marx, for instance, sometimes seem tremendously passionate about their “faith” in the object of their belief.

Roland Barthes

Roland Barthes (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A good example of a dialectical materialist who seems to “believe in” Marx’s ideas with great intensity can be found in J. D. Bernal, whose Science in History, Vols. 1-4. follows the Marxist ideology pretty closely.

But not only Marxists can get passionate about their beliefs. Social thinkers like Roland Barthes have argued that American patriotism, particularly during the 1950s, arguably had all the intensity of a religious faith. That is, the idea of the American Spirit connoted a intense set of beliefs about the superiority and moral goodness of America.

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A segment of a social network

A segment of a social network (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Class is a sociological concept describing a hierarchical social order based on money, property, commercial goods or quality of character, occupation, lifestyle, and in some instances, physical appearance.

Interesting tidbits from Wikipedia:

The term “class” is etymologically derived from the Latin classis, which was used by census takers to categorize citizens by wealth, in order to determine military service obligations.

In the late 18th century, the term “class” began to replace classifications such as estates, rank, and orders as the primary means of organizing society into hierarchical divisions. This corresponded to a general decrease in significance ascribed to hereditary characteristics, and increase in the significance of wealth and income as indicators of position in the social hierarchy.¹

Karl & his daughter Jenny Marx

Karl & his daughter Jenny Marx (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In classical sociological theory, Karl Marx emphasizes the ownership or non-ownership of the so-called ‘means of production’ as a prime indicator of class. This ownership of the means of production includes land, factories, machines, tools and knowledge about how to be an effective producer of commodities.

Meanwhile, Max Weber stresses the importance of social status, prestige, and political power in addition to Marx’s ideas about ownership of the means of production.

Fairly recent sociological terms relating to class and hierarchical inequality are stratification and disparity.

Although classical sociologists took great pains to delineate just what class is, not too many contemporary thinkers agree on its definition. And some say that class doesn’t really exist. After all, how can we accurately determine a person’s supposed class? By money? knowledge? prestige? power? beauty? goodness? ability? age?

Along these lines, the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu introduced the idea of cultural capital with Jean-Claude Passeron in “Cultural Reproduction and Social Reproduction” (1973). Again from Wikipedia:

Pierre Bourdieu

Pierre Bourdieu (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The term cultural capital refers to non-financial social assets that promote social mobility beyond economic means. Examples can include education, intellect, style of speech, dress, and even physical appearance, et cetera.²

Instead of focusing on the idea of class as some kind of absolute truth in itself, postmoderns like Michel Foucault emphasize the role of social power in determining outcomes among competing discourses. For Foucault, the idea of discourse refers to relative social truths (generated by soft and/or hard power) as well as institutionalized social practices.  For Foucault, society is in constant struggle, so individuals and groups are always in a competitive kind of ‘war,’ even in peacetime.

Most sociological analyses of class overlook the message of many religious traditions, a message that essentially inverts worldly thinking about rank and order:

The worldly rich may be poor in spirit whereas the worldly poor may be rich in spirit (Matthew 6:19-20, Mark 10:21).

However, it seems a common mistake and gross simplification to suppose that all materially wealthy people are spiritually poor and that all materially poor people are spiritually rich (1 Timothy 6:17).

Whether or not the notion of class eventually disappears from our collective vocabulary remains to be seen.

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