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Marxism and the Welfare State

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Marxism is a social, political, and economical system of thought, named after German philosopher, Karl Marx, but it only came into existence after his death in 1883. It looks at the impact of free enterprise on work, productivity, and financial development and contends for a worker revolution to collapse a capitalist society for socialism. It establishes that the battle between social classes, in particular between the bourgeoisie, or capitalists, and the working-class, or laborers, characterizes economic relations in a capitalist economy and will indefinitely prompt communist revolution. While Marx was the founder of Marxism, his good friend and fellow German philosopher, Friedrich Engels, was often regarded as the co-founder of Marxism, and by extension, Marxism also embraces the ideas of supporters that are derived from or based upon his work. The term ‘Marxism’ was first used by Lafargue during the socialist movements of the 1870s and 1880s.

The focal point of Marxism is the idea that outlines why capitalism is doomed and why socialism is destined to be its ultimate successor, but lest we forget, this is still just a philosophy of a certain kind. Ludwig Feuerbach, another German philosopher, was the first known influence on Marx. As Marx put in a series of short, but philosophical notes, known as the ‘Theses on Feuerbach’ (1845): “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it”. He hence considered his work to be as both a theory of society and a socialist political venture. The seriousness of Marx’s writings derives partially from his reluctance to separate theory from execution and his belief that as people form their world, all the while, they are additionally assisting with forming themselves.

Marx criticized past socialist thinkers, such as Saint-Simon, Fourier, and Owen as ‘utopians’ on the premise that their socialism was grounded in the longing for all out social change separate with the need of class struggle and revolution. Contrariwise, he attempted an arduous, empirical examination of history and society, hoping thereby to acquire some form of knowledge into the idea of future developments. However, whether with Marx’s help or not, Marxism as the endeavor to gain historical understanding through the applications of scientific methods, later formed into Marxism as an assortment of scientific truths.

For Marx, the most important conflict in society takes place in the economic base, which is a combination of ‘forces of production’ (human labor power and the means of production, i.e. non-human, physical inputs) and ‘relations of production’ (relations of property, power and control governing society’s productive assets). As these productive forces develop, they come into conflict with exploitative relations of production; these conflicts are reflected in class struggles that fundementally drive social change. In the first chapter of the ‘Communist Manifesto’ (1848), Marx and Engels wrote: “The History of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”. In the preface of ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy’ (1859), Marx suggested that social consciousness and the ‘legal and political superstructure’ arise from the economic base, the genuine establishment of society. This base comprises essentially of the ‘mode of production’ (i.e. typical ways in which goods and services are produced) or economic system capitalism, socialism, and what have you.

Marx argues that capitalism is about the exploitation of one social-class over another then social equality doesn’t work, subsequently the only purpose of the welfare system is as an instrument of the ruling-class, because welfare appeases the common workers when, truth be told, welfare is a form of social control. This is on the grounds that the welfare system provides education, preventing absolute poverty as well as providing effective and free healthcare to the workers, so the state looks as though it cares when it doesn’t.

Relations of production specify two main classes: capitalists (i.e. bourgeoisie; the dominant or ruling class), who own the means of production, and workers (i.e. proletariat; the subordinate class), who do not own means of production, but labor power instead. However, we should also understand that Marx doesn’t say that society has only these two main classes, he also accepts that there are residues of classes from previous production, such as landowners, as well as evolution of classes within capitalism: growth of middle class and divisions within the capitalists (for example industrial vs financial capital).

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According to Marx, capitalism was doomed because the key conflict within capitalism occurred between the capitalists and the workers. Capitalists buy labor from workers who then use their wages to buy goods and services from capitalists to reproduce their labor power. Capitalists end up with a profit, but workers go back to where they were initially. Capitalists also make profit by paying workers less than the true value they generate (i.e. exploit them by appropriating the surplus value. This exploitation of workers was the main source of class struggles, which would therefore prompt a higher stage of development in the foundation of a socialist (and in the long run communist) society.

Marx paid little attention to the institutions of welfare because they hardly existed during his time. He also overlooked the developments in the Victorian era, which have now come to be viewed as the early stages of the welfare state. That being said, Marx studied factory legislations, which was the very first achievement of the worker against the capitalist. In ‘Capital Vol. 1’, Marx studied the factory legislation that set up some limits on the level of exploitation. For example, the Ten Hours Act 1847, restricted the working hours of women and children to, of course, ten hours. In his analysis of the factory legislations, Marx highlighted the inconsistencies of the ‘bourgeois state’. Marx’s argument was that the bourgeois state largely serves the interests of the dominant class, meaning the capitalists, but he also acknowledged that the state, to a certain extent, has to represent the community as a whole. Marx recognized that welfare could begin to be established through the collect actions of labor, but for him, the prospects of welfare reform was limited. The analysis was based on laissez-faire capitalism, but since then, we witnessed important development, increased state intervention in social and economic life, and which is more, the development of the welfare state.

Marxists emphasize the role of the working class in the development of the welfare state. They view welfare states as a series of concessions won by organized labor movement (Gough, 1979). It was also a response to the threat of radical socialism, because after the post-war period, there were parallel socialist systems being developed in many nations, such as the Soviet Regime. Therefore, in order to make the existing capitalist system palatable, they had to offer some concessions to the workers and to deal with the threat of radical socialism, welfare states were introduced. Marxists object to ideological claim that welfare state is aimed at accomplishing democratic outcomes (Saville, 1957; Offe, 1972). They argue that social services are largely financed by the working classes, but resources are distributed more within than between classes, and that when the whole range of state activities and subsidies are concerned, the welfare state benefits the rich the most; they believe that the welfare state is ‘capitalism for the poor, socialism for the rich’ (Offe, 1972: 482).

The welfare state is viewed as a social control mechanism that is critical to the legitimization and the maintenance of the capitalist system. This notion of the welfare state being a mechanism for social control is evident within the ideas about ‘the capitalist state’ (Miliband, 1977, or Poulantzas 1978), as well as the contradictory functions of the welfare state (O’Connor, 1973). There are two different views on the capitalist state, the instrumentalist view, and the structuralist view. Instrumentalists, such as Ralph Miliband (1977), view the state as a tool in the hands of individual capitalists. They also see the state remain capitalist by nature, because of the occupation of key positions by the upper classes. Structuralists, such as Poulantzas (1978), also see the state as capitalist by nature, but this is in light of the fact that the very structure of the economy is capitalist also. They suggest that the state is ultimately interested in preserving the capitalist system, as well as having ‘relative autonomy’ to act against certain, short-term interests of individual capitalists; in other words, protecting capitalism in the long run.

According to O’Connor (1973), the welfare state serves as a capital accumulation function. This role involves making the conditions for the foundation and development of markets, such as by improving physical infrastructure and productivity of labor. The state also serves as a legitimation function, meaning that this role would require making the operation of the capitalist system acceptable, such as by changing the manner in which people think and act and by offering concessions to appease them. For O’Connor (1973), the capital accumulation and functions tend to conflict with each other as fulfillment of these functions require increased public expenditure. Since the economic surplus accumulates in private hands, however, the state cannot raise adequate funds for it, coupled with claims by specific interest groups, such as corporations, labor and the unemployed for a share in public expenditure. These functions cause economic instability and crisis. For O’Connor, these two functions are not easy to fulfil as they contradict each other.

In conclusion, with all theories and philosophies, there is their main field and Marxism is no exception. Since Marxism has its own field of origin, it is better at explaining social policy welfare developments in areas strong economic implications. The Marxist argument on the role of thesis on the role of organized labor movement is a plausible role, in which is supported by evidence. Marxism, however, does not talk about conflicts within the working class and does not take the influence of professionals, charities, gender, ethnicity, nationalism, etc. has on the welfare state. Yet, the Marxist concept of linking the welfare state to the economic base remains relevant, especially because of the concessions offered to working classes to ensure greater stability within capitalism in the threat of socialism or any other kind of radical change. It remains relevant also because the ways in which the welfare state benefits middle and upper classes, and this relationship between the welfare state and economic base also remains important in the recent reforms eroding the welfare state.

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Marxism and the Welfare State. (2022, October 28). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 6, 2023, from
“Marxism and the Welfare State.” Edubirdie, 28 Oct. 2022,
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Marxism and the Welfare State [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Oct 28 [cited 2023 Dec 6]. Available from:
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