HideShow resource information
  • Created by: Amy
  • Created on: 27-01-13 15:29


Historical materialism: 

  • In a capitalist society the ruling class own the means of production (e.g. factories, raw materials, land) and employ the subject class to work for them in return for a wage. The subject class work because they need to pay for material needs such as food and shelter.
  • Capitalism is the mode of production. This forms the economic base of society, which then influences the superstructure of society i.e. the institutions of society such as the family, education, and media etc, all of which reinforce capitalism.

Class society and exploitation:

  • The ruling class exploit the subject class in a capitalist society because the subject class do the hard work but the ruling class make the profit.


  • The subject class do not own the goods they produce; they sell their labour to survive and must buy the goods from the ruling class. However, the amount they are paid to produce the goods and the amount the goods are sold for it not the same because they are only paid the cost of the subsistence i.e. staying alive. The difference creates surplus value = profit for the ruling class.
1 of 8


Class consciousness

  • However, the subject class can develop a class consciousness – awareness of their exploitation. This could threaten the ruling class, who create an ideology to maintain their power.


  • The ruling class create a set of beliefs , values and ideas – an ideology – to make the subject class believe their situation is better than it really is and to justify capitalism. This creates a false class consciousness for the subject class, making them unaware of their exploitation and preventing a challenge to the ruling class.


  • The subject class have no control over their labour and what work they do. They do not own the goods they produce; this is known as alienation.


  • Marx believes that the subject class must overthrow the ruling class to free themselves from their oppression and exploitation and create a classless, communist society
2 of 8

Criticisms of Marxism

  • Economic determinism: it assumes everything is influenced by the economy, but this ignores free will
  • Feminists criticise Marxists for ignoring gender inequality
3 of 8


Gramsci argued the ruling class maintain a hegemony (dominant beliefs and ideas) over the subject class through coercion and consent. This is necessary because the ruling class are in a minority and the subject class hold a dual consciousness which could lead to revolution, particularly during a time of economic crisis. However, this will only happen if the subject class create their own intellectuals to organise the subject class into a revolution. 

Coercion: it uses the army, police, prisons and courts of the capitalist state to force the other classes to accept its rule

Consent (hegemony): it uses ideas and values to persuade the subordinate classes that its rule is legitimate

The ruling class rely heavily on consent to maintain their rule. They are able to do so because they control the institutions that produce and spread ideas, such as the media, the education system and religion. So long as the rest of society accepts the ruling-class hegemony, there will not be a revolution, even when the economic conditions might seem favourable.

The hegemony of the ruling class never complete because the ruling class are a minority: to rule, the need to create a power bloc by making alliances with other groups, such as the middle classes. They must therefore make ideological compromises to take account of the interests of their allies. Moreover, the subject class have a dual consciousness: their ideas are influenced not only by bourgeois ideology, but also by their material conditions of life – the poverty and exploitation they experience. This means they can ‘see through’ the dominant ideology to some degree. Thus, there is always the possibility of ruling-class hegemony being undermined.

4 of 8


This will only lead to a revolution if the subject class are able to construct a counter-hegemonic bloc. In other words, they must be able to offer moral and ideological leadership to society. 

The working class can only win this battle by producing their own ‘organic intellectuals’. By this, he means a body of workers, organised into a revolutionary political party, who are able to formulate an alternative vision of how society could be run.

This would win ideological leadership from the ruling class by offering new vision of how society should be organised, based on socialist rather than capitalist values.

5 of 8

Evaluation of Gramsci

  • The subject class may accept capitalism not because they believe in the ruling class hegemony, but because they do not wish to lose their jobs as a result of retaliation
  • Structuralist Marxists question whether the subject class really are able to create a revolution to challenge the ruling class (see below) because they are in a state of false class consciousness
  • However, humanist Marxism does show that traditional Marxism is too deterministic and ignores individual free will: that the subject class can see through the ruling class ideology and actively challenge the ruling class
6 of 8


Althusser argued it is a social structure rather than social action that shapes society rather than social action that shapes society. He rejects the humanist Marxist approach, arguing free will is an illusion. He also rejects the traditional Marxist view of a simple superstructure of a capitalist economy (i.e. all institutions influence the economy). Instead, he saw three levels of a capitalist society- called structural determinism:

  • The economic level: activities to produce things to satisfy needs
  • The political level: all forms of an organization
  • The ideological level: the ways people understand the world

Unlike the traditional Marxist view, the political and ideological levels have some independence from the economic level (relative autonomy) and may influence the economic level (two-way causality).  

polital + ideological levels |  economic level

7 of 8

The state apparatus

The state performs ideological and political roles which help to reproduce and maintain capitalism. This is achieved through:

  • The repressive state apparatus: ‘armed bodies of men; such as the police and army that coerce people
  • The ideological state apparatus: includes the media, education and religion which spread the ruling class ideology onto the subject to ensure they accept capitalism

(This is like Hitler and his Anti-Semitic views)

This challenges humanist Marxists who suggest the subject class can see through the ruling class ideology. Structuralist Marxists argue this idea of free will is an illusion and the subject class are in a state of false class consciousness created by the ideological state apparatus e.g. we may think education helps us but, in reality, it only benefits the ruling class. Change will not occur due to a change in class consciousness.

8 of 8




The hegemony of the ruling class never complete because the ruling class are a minority: to rule, the need to create a power bloc by making alliances with other groups, such as the middle classes. They must therefore make ideological compromises to take account of the interests of their allies. Moreov



the subject class have a dual consciousness: their ideas are influenced not only by bourgeois ideology, but also by their material conditions of life – the poverty and exploitation they experience. This means they can ‘see through’ the dominant ideology to some degree. Thus, there is always the possibility of ruling-class hegemony being undermined

Similar Sociology resources:

See all Sociology resources »See all Sociological theory resources »