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Marx and marxism

Marx is clearly one of the major thinkers in social research and a great many of his works, and commentaries on his work, are freely available. There is no need to duplicate these resources here. From the point of view of our project with its focus on social theory Marx's work has, however, a particular interest.

First, Marxism is often presented as an example of 'grand', or at least big theory, as it offers an overarching framework (or a way of looking at the world) that can be applied in many different situations. Of course there are limits to its intended scope, and indeed Marxism itself argues that cultures and cultural assumptions alter to reflect changing material conditions, but its ambition is there to see.

Second, like many theories, interpretation of Marx has undergone repeated changes of emphasis and been radically reinterpreted over time. This was something Marx himself was aware when arguing towards the end of his life 'I am not a Marxist'.

Third, I think Marx illustrates the complementary nature of the strengths and weaknesses within a theory. For example what is good in Marx is its wide scope; what is weak is that this wide scope may lead the researcher away from the details of the case; what is good is the focus on conflict and change but this very strength is a weakness if it leads us to exaggerate instability and to miss that much behaviour is routine.

If you want to read one thing to get the overall sweep of his thinking you might try ‘The Communist Manifesto’. It sets out the key themes of relentless change, class division, exploitation and aspiration. It is a rattling read, too.

As you read it you might want to ask:

Does the idea of binary polarisation work?

To what extent is change seen as inevitable?

Do social structures inevitable have their bases in the ownership of the means of production and their technological development?

After you read this you might want to ask what appears relevant / not relevant about Marx today? You might also reflect on the role of Big Theory in social research, Marx is about as all encompassing as theory comes, what pros and cons does this bring?

Marx, K. and Engels, F. (1948) The Communist Manifesto [online]

There are very many accounts of Marx's work, for example

Avineri, S. (1968). The Social and Political Thought of Karl Marx. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

remains a well established overview of Marx's ideas. You can access most of what Marx and Engels (his collaborator) wrote at

There are many biographies available which will give you a background to the times in which Marx wrote.