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materialist theory of history exam essay question

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Wilfrid Laurier University
Ken Morrison

Karl Marx’s materialist theory of history is a theory that studies one of the main commonalities between all societies, past and present, social inequality (Sociological Theory, January 2014). In this theory, Marx uses the term materialism to refer to the theoretical perspective that specializes in conflicts surrounding the circumstances of human life, mainly conflicts in relation to the satisfaction and maintenance of material and economic needs in terms of survival (Sociological Theory, January 2014). The central historical focus Marx used in this study is the production of material needs such as food, shelter and clothing. He found that, in all societies, the first task that must be accomplished among the group is the satisfaction of material needs such as food, shelter and clothing. In other words, the primary task in societies is always economic (Sociological Theory, January 2014). In order to live, humans must fulfill duties through economic production in order to sustain existence. Marx listed three premises to better understand the cause of social inequality as explain in his materialist theory of history. First, as stated above, humans must always put the task of obtaining food, shelter and clothing in order to survive, before anything else (Morrison, p. 42, 2006). Second, humans are distinguished from the animal world on the sole basis that they must produce their material needs to survive, while animals rely on nature (Morrison, p. 42, 2006). Finally, the way that human beings produce rely on what tools and resources they have readily available in the natural world. Depending on the economic and social state at various times, human existence and life changes (Morrison, p. 42-3, 2006). Furthermore, Marx found that all historical societies were made up of two structural components; (1) an economic base consisting of an economic foundation that ultimately determines the superstructure and (2) the superstructure that is made up of political, religious, legal, educational and familial institutions. These concepts explain the large gap between rich and poor throughout all societies (Morrison, p. 43, 2006). Marx added that historical societies that did fail or succumbed to their failures did not have a strong economic base (Sociological Theory, January 2014). Marx focuses on three main economic epochs; ancient, feudal and capitalistic (Sociological Theory, January 2014). In each epoch, the division of rich and poor and social inequality among the masses was the direct result of each class carrying out different tasks in the production process, which occurs once both classes come together in the workplace (Sociological Theory, January 2014). This is seen in ancient societies through the dominant vs. slave relations, in feudal societies through the landholder vs. the serfs and finally, capitalistic in the boss vs. the worker. In order to fully understand the recurring trait of social inequality throughout all historical societies, Marx focused his study on three fundamental concepts: (1) the means of production, (2) the relations of production and (3) the mode/forces of production (Sociological Theory, January 2014). First, the means of production can be defined as anything in the exterior realm that is used to fulfill material needs of food, shelter and clothing that sustain their being (Sociological Theory, January 2014).An example of this could be the use of jobs to produce wages or land to produce fuel and food (Morrison, p. 44, 2006). One commonality between societies is that one class, the upper class, always monopolized the means of production, though it was never privatized prior to capitalistic societies (Sociological Theory, January 2014). This is the most significant fact of the materialist theory of history because it causes the ultimate divide of owners and non-owners between economic classes (Morrison, p. 44, 2006).As a result of this monopolized portion of society, three consequences occur: (1) the ownership over the means of production by one class results in the sequential ownership as private property, (2) the worker is no longer able to employ the means of production at their own will and (3) social inequality between classes develop (Sociological Theory, January 2014). With the ownership of the means of production being monopolized by one class, two restrictions arose that compromised the worker’s attempt to survive (Sociological Theory, January 2014). First, the bosses created hiring policies, imposed work schedules and put a cap on wages and wage levels (Sociological Theory, January 2014). These included working long hours for a small amount of pay and paying the most minimal wage. The bosses found that, by maximizing the workday and decreasing the wages to the absolute minimum, they were able to profit to large extremes (Sociological Theory, January 2014). Marx believed that restrictions created obstacles for the worker to gain access to the means of production through deterring hiring policies that may prevent some workers from getting hired based on age, class, gender and race (Sociological Theory, January 2014). Furthermore, untrained workers may have limits imposed on their wages, or may be required to work without wages until they are deemed “properly trained” (Sociological Theory, January 2014). With hiring policies put in place, there were many requirements that must be
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