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by Phil Bartle, PhD

Training Handout

An Early Theory of Change

The notions of Karl Marx about change were built on the writing of a philosopher, GWF Hegel, who developed the concept of the dialect.

This notion was based on the idea that everything had within itself the seeds of its own destruction, but that a new form would rise from the ashes of the resulting destruction.  The cycle was described as thesis, antithesis and synthesis.

Some people see this as having resemblance to classical Greek and Latin myths about the Phoenix Bird, who flies too close to the sun and burns, and creation myths of Athapaskan people of the Great Plains of North America.

Marx took this idea of the dialectic and applied it to society, saying that the origins of change are all materialistic.  In our terms that means they belong to the cultural dimensions of technology and economy.

As technology of people developed from gatherer/hunters, to agriculture (horticulture/ herding) to the Industrial revolution, changes in the technology led to changes in social organisation and to beliefs and values.

Simple gathering and hunting societies, he said, had “primitive communism.”  In agrarian societies, which he called feudal, the main conflict was between the owners of land (or aristocracy) and those who worked on the land (or serfs).

The major source of conflict in the industrial age was between:

  • the workers, whom he called the proletariat, from Latin, who survived by selling their labour, and

  • the owners of factories, whom he called the bourgeoisie, a word having the same origin as burgh and burger, who needed the labour to make a profit.

The exploited class favoured and would benefit from change towards more equality, while the exploiting class resisted such change.  As society had the seeds of destruction within itself, simple communism fell apart and was replaced by feudalism, then feudalism fell apart and was replaced by capitalism.

Marx expected capitalism to fall apart because of the dynamic tension between workers and owners, and the resulting revolution would result in communism, where the state would wither away and the economy would be based on the slogan, “From each according to his ability; to each according to his need.”

This approach is called dialectical materialism.

Marx, who died in 1883, expected a communist revolution to take place as a result of the tension between workers and factory owners. Ironically, the two major communist revolutions took place in Russia (1917) and China (1949), both feudal agrarian societies at the time.


See: Dead Sociologists Society.

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