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Marx, Weber, Durkheim, and Simmel: The Individual & Society

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Each of the four classical theorists Marx, Weber, Durkheim, and Simmel had different theories of the relationship between society and the individual. It is the objective of this paper to critically evaluate the sociological approaches of each theory to come to a better understanding of how each theorist perceived such a relationship and what it means for the nature of social reality.

Karl Marx noted that society was highly stratified in that most of the individuals in society, those who worked the hardest, were also the ones who received the least from the benefits of their labor. In reaction to this observation, Karl Marx wrote The Communist Manifesto where he described a new society, a more perfect society, a communist society. Marx envisioned a society, in which all property is held in common, that is a society in which one individual did not receive more than another, but in which all individuals shared in the benefits of collective labor (Marx #11, p. 262). In order to accomplish such a task Marx needed to find a relationship between the individual and society that accounted for social change. For Marx such relationship was from the historical mode of production, through the exploits of wage labor, and thus the individual's relationship to the mode of production (Marx #11, p. 256).

In the Communist Manifesto it is very clear that Marx is concerned with the organization of society. He sees that the majority individuals in society, the proletariat, live in sub-standard living conditions while the minority of society, the bourgeoisie, have all that life has to offer. However, his most acute observation was that the bourgeoisie control the means of production that separate the two classes (Marx #11 p. 250). Marx notes that this is not just a recent development rather a historical process between the two classes and the individuals that compose it. "It [the bourgeois] has but established new classes, new conditions of oppression, and new forms of struggle in place of the old ones. Our epoch, the epoch of the bourgeoisie, possesses, however, this distinctive feature: it has simplified the class antagonisms. Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other: Bourgeoisie and Proletariat" (Marx #11 p. 246). In order to understand the relationship between the individual and society we must first understand the mode of production, particularly the capitalist mode of production, and thus the individual's relationship to the mode of production.

The capitalist means of production, through the process of exploitation, changes the worker's relation to the product, in that the product the laborer produces is no longer the product of the laborer. Thus, "the object that labour produces, its product, confronts it as an alien being, as a power independent of the producer" (Marx #3 p.86). The alienation of the worker from the product changes the way we, as objective observers, perceive social reality. Further that this relationship changes the way the worker interprets their own reality. "Thus the worker only feels a stranger. He is at home when he is not working and when he works he is not at home. His labour is therefore not voluntary but compulsory, forced labour" (#3 p. 88).

Marx notes that "when commodities are exchanged, their exchange-value manifests itself as something totally independent of their use-value" and that "exchange-value is the only form in which the value of commodities can manifest itself or be expressed" (Marx #18 p.460). This value, expressed in exchange, can be measured by the amount of labor time that is invested into the commodity (Marx #18 p.461). Therefore, the worker, when confronted with a need that could not be satisfied by their production alone, could in turn produce a commodity that could be exchanged on the open market for another commodity satisfying the original need (Marx #18 p. 482-483). Not only did the worker produce value through the production of a commodity, but that labor itself could be viewed as a commodity in that it could be sold on the open market. (Marx #18 p. 489)

Under the existing forces of production, the capitalist could purchase the commodity of labor for an allotted amount of time agreed upon between the capitalist and the worker, and use it to invest in the creation of commodities for the capitalist to sell on the open market. Marx now notes that the use-value which labor posses for the capitalist is that it can produce more value then it would take to sustain the worker (Marx #18 p. 504). Through exploitation or paying the worker a subsistence wage and working the individual longer than the amount of time "necessary" to reproduce the value of that wage, the capitalist creates surplus value.

The capitalist form of production, through the process of exploitation which is solidified by wage subsistence labor, increasingly divides the population into two classes (Marx #11 p. 246). The classes are characterized by their relationship to the capitalist form of production in that one owns the means of production (the bourgeoisie) while the other (the proletariat) owns nothing but his labor power, which he must sell in order to gain access to the means of production for survival (Marx #11 p. 251).

An example of this would be a factory producing a commodity, for this example let's use radios. Some of the money obtained from selling radios will be spent on things like raw materials or constant capital in order to build more radios (Marx #18 p. 509-510). It would be in the workers' best interest to have as much of that money as possible go to them, and as little as possible to the capitalist. It would be in the capitalists' interests to have as much of that money going to them, and as little as possible go to the workers, however since it is the goal of the capitalist to make more money at the expense or exploitation of the worker the latter is the case.

However, by understanding their common situation of forced poverty the proletariat would eventually be able to confront the bourgeoisie by forming as a "class for itself" instead of a dispersed "class of itself" (Marx #11 p. 252). Marx felt that the class antagonism between capitalist and workers was the basic conflict that would last as long as capitalism. Inevitably, this would cause an extreme polarization of the classes, leading eventually to the revolution that would destroy capitalism itself, and thus spell the end of all class society (Marx #11 p. 246-247).

The revolution would initially lead to a Socialist society in which the proletariat would control the state (Marx #11 p. 261). The two classes would still struggle, but eventually the struggle would recede and the classes dissolve. As class boundaries broke down,

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