In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Marxist Sociology

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Resources
  • Journals
  • Key Writings of Marx and Engels for Sociologists
  • Classical Marxism After Marx
  • Critiques

Sociology Marxist Sociology
Michael McCarthy, Jeff Manza
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 July 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 July 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0032


Karl Marx (b. 1818–d. 1883) and his lifelong collaborator Friedrich Engels (b. 1820–d. 1895) developed a body of thought that would inspire major social movements, initiate revolutionary social change across the globe, and provide the foundation for many socialist or communist governments. More recently, Marxism’s political influence has waned, with most of the formerly communist regimes undergoing significant change. It is important, however, to separate out Marxism as a system of ideas in the social sciences from Marxism as a political ideology and the foundation for revolutionary social movements and as a governing philosophy. Marxist ideas have influenced many fields of thought and indeed have played a particularly important role in the development of the discipline of sociology. Classical sociological theorists such as Émile Durkheim (b. 1858–d. 1917) and Max Weber (b. 1864–d. 1920), for example, developed their theories of society in conversation with the works of Karl Marx. However, as it evolved in the United States and western Europe in the middle parts of the 20th century, sociology’s dialogue with Marxian propositions declined. For example, the widely influential norm-oriented functionalist sociology of Talcott Parsons (b. 1902–d. 1979) had little engagement with Marxist thought. In the aftermath of the large-scale social struggles of the 1960s and 1970s, however, sociologists around the world increasingly embraced a historically oriented approach to knowledge and in many cases found in the classics of Marxism a source of inspiration. Debates and controversies over Marxism continue to shape the development of sociology up to the present time, although “neo-Marxism” is less influential today than it was twenty-five years ago. Nonetheless, serious students of sociology have to have some familiarity with some of the classical ideas and theorists of Marxism, and Marxist theories continue to influence some parts of the discipline today.

General Overviews

It is hardly surprising, given its historical significance, that hundreds of general overviews of Marxism have been written. As a body of thought and a political movement, Marxism can be synthesized from many points of view. McLellan 1974 offers an ideal introduction through an examination of the life and ideas of Marx himself. Draper 1977 and Draper 1978 focus more squarely on the relationship between Marxism and politics. In the case of Marxist sociology, Bottomore 1984 provides a historical analysis of the relationship between Marxism and sociology. Lefebvre 1968’s contribution provides a more advanced introduction. Mandel 1970 is a good place to start for students interested in Marxist economic theory (which is shaped by sociological insights far more than its neoclassical competitors). Foley 1986 develops more formalized models for understanding the basic contributions of Marx’s political economy. Finally, Ollman 1976 offers an excellent overview of Marx’s philosophical concept of alienation.

  • Bottomore, Tom. 1984. Sociology and socialism. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

    A collection of essays that examine the historical relationship of Marxist theory to sociological thought, highlighting in particular the ways in which the growth of sociology has reflected an ongoing dialogue with Marxism.

  • Draper, Hal. 1977. Karl Marx’s theory of revolution. Vol. 1, State and bureaucracy. New York: Monthly Review Press.

    This is a thorough, wide-ranging, and easy-to-comprehend exegesis of Marx and Engels’ writings on democracy and their approach to politics. It is part of a five-volume collection on a range of central concepts and debates in Marxian theory.

  • Draper, Hal. 1978. Karl Marx’s theory of revolution. Vol. 2, The politics of social classes. New York: Monthly Review Press.

    This excellent follow-up to Volume 1 continues with a clear and wide-ranging exegesis of Marx and Engels, focused squarely on the question of social class—the class structure, classes in history, and classes and revolution.

  • Foley, Duncan K. 1986. Understanding capital: Marx’s economic theory. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    This clear and short book reviews the core contributions of all three volumes of Marx’s major economic treatise, Capital. This is a very useful resource for those who engage with Marx’s political economy.

  • Lefebvre, Henri. 1968. The sociology of Marx. New York: Pantheon.

    Seeks to uncover the systematic contributions to sociology in the writings of Karl Marx, including Marx’s contributions to social theory, the sociology of knowledge, political sociology, and class analysis. Originally published in French in 1966.

  • Mandel, Ernest. 1970. An introduction to Marxist economic theory. New York: Pathfinder.

    This short book offers a concise exploration of the basic concepts in Marx’s political economy.

  • McLellan, David. 1974. Karl Marx: His life and thought. London: Harper & Row.

    This is a key biography of Marx, situating his core theoretical contributions in his social and intellectual milieu.

  • Ollman, Bertell. 1976. Alienation: Marx’s conception of man in a capitalist society. 2d ed. Cambridge Studies in the History and Theory of Politics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    This is the most thorough exploration of Marx’s concept of alienation—the condition of human beings in capitalist society—in the English language.

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