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13 September 2012

Using Shoes to Teach Marx

Every semester in my introductory-level sociology class, I spend a day specifically on Marx. I give the students a crash course on Marxist theory at the end of our unit on inequality, after they've read a lot of contemporary research on race, poverty, and gender and, finally, selections from The Communist Manifesto. Marx can be tricky for a number of reasons. First, most students in the U.S. have learned to see Marx as a boogieman and are resistant to the idea that he has anything of worth to teach us. Second, understanding Marx requires learning a whole new set of terms which can be daunting. Here is a short list of the most essential terms:
  • capital
  • commodity/commodification
  • labor theory of value
  • bourgeois
  • proletariat
  • means of production
  • alienation
  • false consciousness
  • class consciousness
Since all of this can get esoteric pretty quickly, I've found it helpful to have a concrete example to benefit my students. I use cobbling. It ends up getting somewhat elaborate, but here is an abridged version of my lesson.

Imagine a shoemaker, a cobbler. In the late agricultural epoch, a cobbler likely lived on the second story, above his shop. He would wake in the morning, go downstairs, begin with the raw materials, and craft a pair of shoes. He'd then put the shoes in his front window. A neighbor would walk by, see the shoes, come in, and buy them. The cobbler realized all of the profit from the product that he made himself. (This is usually a good time to define capital, commodification, and the labor theory of value.) Flash forward to the industrial epoch. Shoes are no longer made and sold in the same way. Instead, today, shoes are made in factories by several workers, none of whom are likely capable of making a pair of shoes from start to finish but who are all fairly skilled at the one, single task that they repeat over and over during their shift. When the completed pair of shoes rolls off the assembly line, they are boxed and shipped off to be sold by someone else. When they are sold, the profits go to the person(s) who own the factory. (This is usually a good time to define bourgeois, proletariat, and means of production.) The factory workers are not paid based on the profit from what they make but, instead, are given a wage for their labor. Marx was very concerned about how workers had been disconnected from the products that they create and the profits from the sale of those products, both on the individual psychological level and the collective social structural level. (This is usually a good time to define alienation.) Because it's more efficient, there are, by definition, many more workers (i.e. proletariat) than there are factory owners (i.e. bourgeois). Since their relationship is exploitative, why don't the shoe factory workers rise up and kick the factory owners' asses to the curb? (This is usually a good time to define false consciousness and class consciousness.)

It's not a perfect example, but it works better than boring a class to death with a long-winded explanation of the theoretical minutia of Marxist thought.


  1. This is going to reveal my ignorance of modern Marxism, but how do you tie all of these things to today's economy where there are stockholders instead of a single owner of the means of production and there are many occupations for the purpose of sales or service that have nothing to do with production?

  2. Brent, you've hit on some reasonable critiques of Marx' theory, I think, stuff that I do try to discuss with my class. I use their parents as examples for that, pointing out that most of them probably own stocks through their retirement plans (i.e. are bourgeois) but also draw salaries or wages from their jobs (i.e. are proletariat) so they have a contradictory class location that Marx did not predict as a possibility.