Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 December 2014
Introduction: ‘Practice’ in Marxism and Sociology
One persistent theoretical and practical problem in Marxism was to explain the failures of working-class opposition to capitalist exploitation. Karl Marx had assumed that the organized working class would eventually engage in a successful political struggle against the ruling class alongside a background of systematic crises in the economic system. A wide range of explanations as to why this transformation did not take place has been developed over the decades after Marx's death in 1883. At the end of the nineteenth century, it appeared that the condition of the German working class had improved, suggesting that capitalism could be reformed. In Germany, Bismarck had created a minimal social security system for the working class; and, in Great Britain, Asquith had created a similar welfare safety net. Social security legislation had thereby given the industrial working class some minimum level of protection, and the Beveridge Report of 1943 laid the foundation of the British welfare state and the social rights of citizenship (Mommsen, 1981). Apart from the impact of ‘reformism’, other explanations of the incorporation of workers into industrial capitalism involved ideas from Antonio Gramsci about the creation of a moral and ideological hegemony through the church and educational institutions over the working class. These arguments suggested that a combination of factors – a dominant ideology, the coercive apparatus of the state, and some amelioration of the social condition of the workers through welfare institutions – could explain the acquiescence of the worker to capitalist exploitation (Abercrombie, Hill, and Turner, 1980). In other words, the indignation of the worker is constrained by a web of ideological and institutional barriers to effective political action.
There is a parallel theoretical problem, but not a practical political problem, in academic sociology: namely, how to account for human agency in relation to social structure. In some sociological traditions, this problem is not especially prominent.