Sociocultural Systems: Principles of Structure and Change

Macrosociology: The Study of Sociocultural Systems

Macrosociology: Four Modern Theorists

A Commentary on Malthus" 1798 Essay as Social Theory

Industrializing America

The Evolution of the Future

Great Classical Social Theorists

In the Classical Tradition: Modern Social Theorists

Glossary of Social Science

Dr. Elwell's Professional Page


Herbert Spencer's Evolutionary Sociology
Karl Marx


Marx: Revolutionist or Evolutionist?

From Sociocultural Systems: Principles of Structure and Change.

By Frank W. Elwell


While often viewed as a revolutionary, Marx and Engels’ sociological theory is explicitly evolutionary in character. According to Marx’s view of the evolutionary process society has moved through several evolutionary stages, from a communal society based on hunting and gathering what natureKarl Marx provided, to a society based on slavery (ancient), land (feudal), and capital (bourgeois) (Marx 1964, 52, 133). While he saw struggle as the moving force of the evolutionary process, this struggle was only rarely violent in character. Marx’s theory posits that since mankind left the communal societies of pre-history, society has been based on the domination of powerful elites over the mass of people. The power of elites is rooted in their control of the forces of production; this power is often contested, with subordinate groups struggling to increase their share of wealth and power. Technologies of production affect human organization based upon the control of these means. As these technologies change in response to a depleting environment or to new discoveries, the relations between the dominant and subordinate groups change. As new technologies develop, power differentials between the groups shift, at times new elites arise based upon their control of new and more powerful production technologies. It is this struggle between dominant and subordinate groups that are the engine of history, the engine, if you will of sociocultural evolution.

 Marx recognizes that these changes are not instantaneous, that they occur over the course of generations. “The economic structure of capitalist society has grown out of the economic structure of feudal society. The dissolution of the latter set free the elements of the former” (1867/1887, 13250-13252). Marx and Engels often use the term “revolution” in the sense of a drastically different way of behaving or thinking. As when anthropologists or sociologists use the term in referring to the Neolithic or Industrial Revolutions, they are not talking about some instantaneous change but rather transformative changes that often take place over generations, sometimes over thousands of years.

 What aside from its gradual and incremental speed makes Marx’s theory evolutionary? Most significantly it is based on cumulative historical change of human societies in response to a changing environment. The first human societies, Marx argued, were communal in nature. These classless societies existed with a minimal division of labor and were relatively egalitarian in nature. With the domestication of plants and animals, the increasing specialization of crafts and roles appears, bringing in its wake differential access to resources as well aHunting & Gathering Societys differing material interests. These divisions eventually lead to the formation of differing status groups acting in antagonistic cooperation to meet their biological and psychological needs. As the material means of production are changed the social relations that are based on these productive forces are necessarily altered and transformed. In a classic evolutionary statement Marx (1867/1887) states: “Labour is, in the first place, a process in which both man and Nature participate, and in which man of his own accord starts, regulates, and controls the material re-actions between himself and Nature. He opposes himself to Nature as one of her own forces, setting in motion arms and legs, head and hands, the natural forces of his body, in order to appropriate Nature's productions in a form adapted to his own wants. By thus acting on the external world and changing it, he at the same time changes his own nature” (2772-2775).

 According to Marx, every sociocultural system produces counter forces that eventually lead to new social forms. Over time, these forces become so great that they tap into new resources to satisfy human needs at which point the social relations are transformed. The rise of capitalism began with cFeudal Systemhanges in the mode of production in the last third of the fifteenth century and in the opening decades of the sixteenth” (13296-13299). Innovations in wool manufacturing caused a rise in the price of wool in England. In response, feudal lords transformed their holdings from manorial systems in which thousands of peasants had rights to farming the land in exchange for labor and crops, into pasture land for sheep. These peasants had as much right to the land as the lords, Marx points out, but the nobility, weakened by incessant wars, “was the child of its time, for which money was the power of all powers.” Against all opposition of king and Parliament, the feudal lords forcibly drove the peasantry from the common land. The serf is “freed” of his bond to the soil and torn from his means of subsistence. He becomes unprotected and without rights to a livelihood with nothing to sell but his labour (13300-13305). “The history of this expropriation, in different countries, assumes different aspects, and runs through its various phases in different orders of succession, and at different periods. In England alone, which we take as our example, has it the classic form” (13271-13273).

 The structure of capitalist society grew out of the guilds, markets, and towns that were in increasing conflict with feudal lords, church, and the central nobility. The newly emerging merchant class eventually amassed great wealth and began to challenge the hold of elites that had dominated the feudal order through shifting alliances with nobility and monarchy. This revolutionary class began to view existing property relations (feudalism) as a restraint on the further development of their interests, that is, the production of goods through the factory system (Marx and Engels 1848, 18-19, 32-38). Many modern day historians and sociologists have taken up this perspective and assert that the fact that feudal Europe’s elite were split between church, centralized monarchy and feudal lords was a large factor in the successful rise of capitalism. 

 Marx predicted that similar tensions and eventual class conflict will arise in late capitalist societies, bringing on a new social order. Like all previous existing economic systems, capitalism carries the seeds of its own destruction. The capitalist system necessarily goes through regular periods of boom and bust as the productive forces unleashed by capitalism far outstrip its ability toFeudalism then and now sell its goods at a profit. These periodic crises create great hardship for workers who live only through selling their labor, as well as bankrupting many of the capitalists themselves. Over time, Marx predicted, capitalism necessarily leads to enormous amounts of wealth and political power being placed in very few hands, the formation of monopoly capitalism in which a few control all the big industries as well as the state. At the same time he foresaw that the mass of people would become relatively impoverished in both wealth and political power as well as continuing to be subjected to periodic crashes of the economic system. As capitalism continued to evolve the situation would become intolerable for the great masses of people, and the working classes would begin to exercise the power of their numbers and take control of the means of production through the nation state and gradually establish industrial production as a means of satisfying the wants and needs of the people rather than the profit of the few.

Engels, of course, recognized the explicit evolutionism in Marx’s theory and stated so in his eulogy for his friend. “Just as Darwin discovered the law of development of organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of Fredrich Engels Quotehuman history: the simple fact, hitherto concealed by an overgrowth of ideology, that mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion, etc.; that therefore production of the immediate material means, and consequently the degree of economic development attained by a given people or during a given epoch, form the foundation upon which the state institutions, the legal conceptions, art, and even the ideas on religion, of the people concerned have been evolved, and in the light of which they must, therefore, be explained, instead of vice versa, as had hitherto been the case” (Engels 1883). We will examine Marx’s analysis and predictions for the fall of capitalism in more detail in another essay, for now suffice it to say that he had a well-defined evolutionary theory.

Many Russians now say “Marx knew everything about capitalism, and nothing about socialism.” His vision of life after the socialist revolution is sketchy. It appears that the division of labor would not be eliminated but only limited, industrial forces will be harnessed to provide for human needs rather than profit. Supposedly, it is under socialism where the state withers away, it is here where “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs” applies. It could be described as a sort of second coming without Christ. Clearly, Marx’s hopes, dreams, and values have unduly affected his analysis and his vision.

For a more extensive discussion of Marx's theories refer to Macro Social Theory by Frank W. Elwell.  Also see Sociocultural Systems: Principles of Structure and Change to learn how his insights contribute to a more complete understanding of modern societies.


Elwell, F. (2009), Macrosociology: The Study of Sociocultural Systems. Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press.

Elwell, F. (2013), Sociocultural Systems: Principles of Structure and Change. Alberta: Athabasca University Press.

Engels, F. 1883. “Eulogy for Marx.” Retrieved March 22, 2008, from 1883: The Death of Karl Marx:

Marx, K. and Engels, F. 1848. The Communist Manifesto. (F. Engels, Trans. and Ed.) Public Domain Books, Kindle Edition, (2005).

Marx, Karl. 1867/1887. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. Vol. 1, The Process of Production of Capital. Edited by Frederick Engels. Translated by Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling. Public Domain Books, Kindle Edition (2008-11-19). Originally published as Das Kapital: Kritik der politischen Ökonomie, vol. 1.

Referencing this Site:

Marx: Revolutionist or Evolutionist? is copyrighted by Athabasca University Press and is for educational use only. Should you wish to quote from this material the format should be as follows: 

Elwell, Frank, 2013, "Marx Revolutionist or Evolutionist?," Retrieved August 28, 2013 (use actual date),

StatCounter - Free Web Tracker and Counter

©2013 Frank Elwell, Send comments to felwell at