Marxism is both a current within the revolutionary movement against capitalism and a current of social theory which engages a wide spectrum of people. It originates from the political and scientific work of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels in the 1840s, but the words are of later origin. Marxism is the fundamental ideology of communism.
- 1 History
- 2 Concepts
- 3 See also
- 4 External links and further reading
- 5 References
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels
Karl Heinrich Marx (5 May 1818 – 14 March 1883) was a German philosopher, political economist, and socialist revolutionary, who addressed the matters of alienation and exploitation of the working class, the capitalist mode of production, and historical materialism. He is famous for analysing history in terms of class struggle, summarised in the initial line introducing the Communist Manifesto (1848): “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”. His ideas were influential in his time, and it was greatly expanded by the successful Bolshevik October Revolution of 1917 in Imperial Russia.
Friedrich Engels (28 November 1820 – 5 August 1895) was a German political philosopher and Karl Marx’s co-developer of communist theory. Marx and Engels met in September 1844; discovering that they shared like views of philosophy and socialism, they collaborated and wrote works such as Die heilige Familie (The Holy Family). After the French deported Marx from France in January 1845, Engels and Marx moved to Belgium, which then permitted greater freedom of expression than other European countries; later, in January 1846, they returned to Brussels to establish the Communist Correspondence Committee.
In 1847, they began writing The Communist Manifesto (1848), based upon Engels’ The Principles of Communism; six weeks later, they published the 12,000-word pamphlet in February 1848. In March, Belgium expelled them, and they moved to Cologne, where they published the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, a politically radical newspaper. Again, by 1849, they had to leave Cologne for London. The Prussian authorities pressured the British government to expel Marx and Engels, but Prime Minister Lord John Russell refused.
After Karl Marx’s death in 1883, Friedrich Engels became the editor and translator of Marx's writings. With his Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884) — analysing monogamous marriage as guaranteeing male social domination of women, a concept analogous, in communist theory, to the capitalist class’s economic domination of the working class — Engels made intellectually significant contributions to feminist theory and Marxist feminism.
Opposition to use of the term in the 19th century
The word Marxist was first used by supporters of Marx in France, following the Hague Conference of the International in 1872, in order to distinguish themselves from supporters of Bakunin in the ranks of the International, which was undergoing a split. In a letter from to Bernstein 2-3 November 1882, Engels referred to a conversation of Marx with Paul Lafargue in the following terms:
Now what is known as "Marxism" in France is, indeed, an altogether peculiar product – so much so that Marx once said to Lafargue: ‘Ce qu’il y a de certain c’est que moi, je ne suis pas Marxiste.’ [‘If anything is certain, it is that I myself am not a Marxist’].
Marx had a low opinion of his supporters in France at this time, after the defeat of the Commune, but he was also opposed to the intensification of factionalism within the International by people identifying themselves as “Marxists.”
A little later, Engels wrote to Schmidt in 1890 complaining about the intellectual laziness of many “dangerous friends” who were calling themselves “Marxists.”
... little Moritz is a dangerous friend. The materialist conception of history has a lot of them nowadays, to whom it serves as an excuse for not studying history. Just as Marx used to say, commenting on the French “Marxists” of the late 70s: ‘All I know is that I am not a Marxist’.
Engels continued to resist the use of the term to identify the political current formed by their supporters, but as the differences with their opponents in the workers’ movement proved to be irresolvable, Engels reluctantly recognised that it was impossible to avoid the label.
In Engels’ letter to Laura Lafargue in 1889, he says:
Now we have been victorious, we have proved to the world that almost all Socialists in Europe are ‘Marxists’ (they will be mad they gave us that name!) and they are left alone in the cold with Hyndman to console them. And now I hope my services are no longer required.
Marxism as a philosophy
Particularly as a result of Kautsky’s work in promoting and popularising Marx and Engels’ ideas, and with the formation of the Second (Socialist) International, “Marxism” came to be used to refer to a body of doctrine. For example, in Engels’ characterisation of their British supporter, Henry Hyndman, we see his frustration:
After all, the S.D.F. is purely a sect. It has ossified Marxism into a dogma and, by rejecting every labour movement which is not orthodox Marxism (and that a Marxism which contains much that is erroneous), that is, by pursuing the exact opposite of the policy recommended in the Manifesto.
But at the same time, it is clear that Engels had come to accept the use of the word “Marxism” as referring to a body of political philosophy. The word began to appear in the writings of English speaking Marxists from about 1900 through translations of the writings of Kautsky. The British Marxist E. Belfort Bax (1854-1925) never used the word “Marxism,” but does use the “Marxist” as the name of a political current, not a body of theory, as early as 1893, in the context of the differences between supporters of Marx and those of Proudhon and Bakunin.
By 1900, Marxism was also used in opposition to the following of those like Marx’s erstwhile supporter Eduard Bernstein who was designated as a Reformist. Thus, by about 1900, Marxist meant revolutionary socialist, not anarchist or reformist.
After the Russian Revolution, Marxism increasingly came to refer to a body of political theory. After the death of its founders, social conditions continued to transform the workers movement and its problems. By the time of the Russian Revolution, Marxists had achieved so much and gone through so many experiences, and made so many original achievements in social theory, that there really was a body of literature and theory which had a life of its own and deserved the name of Marxism ... but what and who Marxism is, is just as contested today as it was in Marx’s own time.
Early 20th century
The 1917 October Revolution, led by Vladimir Lenin, was the first large scale attempt to put Marxist ideas about a workers' state into practice. The new government faced counterrevolution, civil war and foreign intervention. Socialist revolution in Germany and other western countries failed and the Soviet Union was on its own. An intense period of debate and stopgap solutions ensued, the New Economic Policy (NEP). Lenin died and Joseph Stalin gradually assumed control. He instituted a succesful program of industrialisation.
Following World War II, Marxist ideology, often with Soviet military backing, spawned a rise in revolutionary communist parties all over the world. Some of these parties were eventually able to gain power, and establish their own version of a socialist state. Such nations included the People's Republic of China, Vietnam, Romania, East Germany, Albania, Poland, Ethiopia, South Yemen, Yugoslavia, and others. In some cases, these nations did not get along. The most notable examples ware rifts that occurred between the Soviet Union and China, as well as Soviet Union and Yugoslavia (in 1948), whose leaders disagreed on certain elements of Marxism and how it should be implemented into society.
Late 20th century
In 1959, the Cuban Revolution led to the victory of anti-imperialist Fidel Castro (1926-) and his July 26 Movement. Although the revolution had not been explicitly socialist, upon victory Castro ascended to the position of Prime Minister and eventually adopted the Leninist model of socialist development, forging an alliance with the Soviet Union. One of the leaders of the revolution, the Argentine Leninist Che Guevara (1928–1967), subsequently went on to aid revolutionary socialist movements in Congo-Kinshasa and Bolivia, eventually being killed by the CIA; he would posthumously go on to become an internationally recognised icon.
In the People's Republic of China, the Maoist government undertook the Cultural Revolution from 1966 through to 1976 in order to purge capitalist elements from Chinese society and entrench socialism. However, upon Mao's death, his non-Marxist rivals seized political power and under the Premiership of Deng Xiaoping (1978-1992), Maoism was abandoned and much of the state sector privatised.
The late 1980s and early 1990s saw the collapse of most of those socialist states that had professed a Marxist-Leninist ideology. In the late 1970s and 1980s, the emergence of the New Right and neoliberal capitalism as the dominant ideological trends in western politics - championed by U.S. President Ronald Reagan and U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher - led the west to take a more aggressive stand against the Soviet Union and its Leninist allies. Meanwhile, in the Soviet Union, the reformist Mikhael Gorbachev (1931-) became Premier in 1988, and began to move away from Leninist-based models of development towards social democracy. Ultimately, Gorbachev's reforms, coupled with rising levels of popular ethnic nationalism in the Soviet Union, led to the state's dissolution in 1991 into a series of constituent nations, all of which abandoned Marxist-Leninist models for socialism, with most converting to capitalist economies.
At the turn of the 21st century, Cuba remained the only officially Marxist-Leninist state, although some Asian governments are still influenced by Marxist politics, particularly North Korea. A Maoist government led by Prachanda (1954-) was elected into power in Nepal in 2008 following a long guerilla struggle. The early 21st century also saw the election of socialist and anti-imperialist governments in several Latin American nations, in what has come to be known as the "Pink tide". Dominated by the Venezuelan government of Hugo Chávez, this trend also saw the election of Evo Morales in Bolivia, Rafael Correa in Ecuador and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua; forging political and economic alliances through international organisations like the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas, these socialist governments allied themselves with Marxist-Leninist Cuba, and although none of them espoused a Leninist path directly, most admitted to being significantly influenced by Marxist theory.
"Society does not consist of individuals, but expresses the sum of interrelations, the relations within which these individuals stand."
The historical materialist theory of history, also synonymous to “the economic interpretation of history” (a coinage by Eduard Bernstein), looks for the causes of societal development and change in the collective ways humans use to make the means for living. The social features of a society (social classes, political structures, ideologies) derive from economic activity; “base and superstructure” is the metaphoric common term describing this historic condition.
The base and superstructure metaphor explains that the totality of social relations regarding “the social production of their existence” i.e. civil society forms a society’s economic base, from which rises a superstructure of political and legal institutions i.e. political society. The base corresponds to the social consciousness (politics, religion, philosophy, etc.), and it conditions the superstructure and the social consciousness. A conflict between the development of material productive forces and the relations of production provokes social revolutions, thus, the resultant changes to the economic base will lead to the transformation of the superstructure. This relationship is reflexive; the base determines the superstructure, in the first instance, and remains the foundation of a form of social organization which then can act again upon both parts of the base and superstructure, whose relationship is dialectical, not literal. [clarification and citation needed]
Marx considered that these socio-economic conflicts have historically manifested themselves as distinct stages (one transitional) of development in Western Europe.
- Primitive Communism: as in co-operative tribal societies.
- Slave Society: a development of tribal progression to city-state; Aristocracy is born.
- Feudalism: aristocrats are the ruling class; merchants evolve into capitalists.
- Capitalism: capitalists are the ruling class, who create and employ the proletariat.
- Socialism: workers gain class consciousness, and via proletarian revolution depose the capitalist dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, replacing it in turn with dictatorship of the proletariat through which the socialization of the means of production can be realized.
- Communism: a classless and stateless society.
Criticism of capitalism
"We are, in Marx's terms, 'an ensemble of social relations' and we live our lives at the core of the intersection of a number of unequal social relations based on hierarchically interrelated structures which, together, define the historical specificity of the capitalist modes of production and reproduction and underlay their observable manifestations."—Martha E. Gimenez, Marxism and Class, Gender and Race: Rethinking the Trilogy
According to the Marxist theoretician and revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, "the principal content of Marxism" was "Marx's economic doctrine". Marx believed that the capitalist bourgeois and their economists were promoting what he saw as the lie that "The interests of the capitalist and those of the worker are... one and the same"; he believed that they did this by purporting the concept that "the fastest possible growth of productive capital" was best not only for the wealthy capitalists but also for the workers because it provided them with employment.
Exploitation is a matter of surplus labour — the amount of labour one performs beyond what one receives in goods. Exploitation has been a socio-economic feature of every class society, and is one of the principal features distinguishing the social classes. The power of one social class to control the means of production enables its exploitation of the other classes.
In capitalism, the labour theory of value is the operative concern; the value of a commodity equals the socially necessary labour time required to produce it. Under that condition, surplus value (the difference between the value produced and the value received by a labourer) is synonymous with the term “surplus labour”; thus, capitalist exploitation is realised as deriving surplus value from the worker.
In pre-capitalist economies, exploitation of the worker was achieved via physical coercion. In the capitalist mode of production, that result is more subtly achieved; because the worker does not own the means of production, he or she must voluntarily enter into an exploitive work relationship with a capitalist in order to earn the necessities of life. The worker's entry into such employment is voluntary in that he or she chooses which capitalist to work for. However, the worker must work or starve. Thus, exploitation is inevitable, and the "voluntary" nature of a worker participating in a capitalist society is illusory.
Alienation denotes the estrangement of people from their humanity (German: Gattungswesen, “species-essence”, “species-being”), which is a systematic result of capitalism. Under capitalism, the fruits of production belong to the employers, who expropriate the surplus created by others, and so generate alienated labourers. Alienation objectively describes the worker’s situation in capitalism — his or her self-awareness of this condition is not prerequisite.
- Proletariat: “those individuals who sell their labour power, and who, in the capitalist mode of production, do not own the means of production”. The capitalist mode of production establishes the conditions enabling the bourgeoisie to exploit the proletariat because the workers’ labour generates a surplus value greater than the workers’ wages.
- Bourgeoisie: those who “own the means of production” and buy labour power from the proletariat, thus exploiting the proletariat; they subdivide as bourgeoisie and the petit bourgeoisie.
- Petit bourgeoisie are those who employ labourers, but who also work, i.e. small business owners, peasant landlords, trade workers et al. Marxism predicts that the continual reinvention of the means of production eventually would destroy the petit bourgeoisie, degrading them from the middle class to the proletariat.
- Lumpenproletariat: criminals, vagabonds, beggars, et al., who have no stake in the economy, and so sell their labour to the highest bidder.
- Landlords: an historically important social class who retain some wealth and power.
- Peasantry and farmers: a disorganised class incapable of effecting socio-economic change, most of whom would enter the proletariat, and some become landlords.
Class consciousness denotes the awareness — of itself and the social world — that a social class possesses, and its capacity to rationally act in their best interests; hence, class consciousness is required before they can effect a successful revolution.
Without defining ideology, Marx used the term to denote the production of images of social reality; according to Engels, “ideology is a process accomplished by the so-called thinker consciously, it is true, but with a false consciousness. The real motive forces impelling him remain unknown to him; otherwise it simply would not be an ideological process. Hence he imagines false or seeming motive forces”. Because the ruling class controls the society’s means of production, the superstructure of society, the ruling social ideas are determined by the best interests of said ruling class. In The German Ideology, “the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is, at the same time, its ruling intellectual force”.
The term political economy originally denoted the study of the conditions under which economic production was organised in the capitalist system. In Marxism, political economy studies the means of production, specifically of capital, and how that manifests as economic activity.
Marxists believe that the transition from capitalism to socialism is an inevitable part of the development of human society; as Lenin stated, "it is evident that Marx deduces the inevitability of the transformation of capitalist society [into a socialist society] wholly and exclusively from the economic law of motion of contemporary society."
Marxists believe that a socialist society will be far better for the majority of the populace than its capitalist counterpart, for instance, prior to the Russian revolution of 1917, Lenin wrote that "The socialization of production is bound to lead to the conversion of the means of production into the property of society... This conversion will directly result in an immense increase in productivity of labour, a reduction of working hours, and the replacement of the remnants, the ruins of small-scale, primitive, disunited production by collective and improved labour."
- Marxists Internet Archive
- Terry Eagleton, Why Marx Was Right, Yale University Press, paperback reprint (April 24, 2012), trade paperback, 272 pages, ISBN-10: 0300181531 ISBN-13: 978-0300181531; hardcover, Yale University Press, 1st edition (April 12, 2011), ISBN-10: 0300169434 ISBN-13: 978-0300169430
- Engels to Bernstein 2 November 1882
- Engels To Schmidt August 5, 1890
- Engels to Laura Lafargue 11 June 1889
- Engels to Kautsky 12 August 1892
- See Coltman 2003 and Bourne 1986.
- Lenin 1967 (1913). p. 15.
- Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy, by Karl Marx & Martin Nicolaus, Penguin Classics, 1993, ISBN 0140445757, pg 265
- Evans, p. 53; Marx’s account of the theory is the Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859). . Another exposition of th theory is in The German Ideology. It, too, is available online from marxists.org.
- See A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859), Preface, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1977, with some notes by R. Rojas, and Engels: Anti-Dühring (1877), Introduction General
- Marx does not claim to have produced a master-key to history. Historical materialism is not “an historico-philosophic theory of the marche generale, imposed by fate upon every people, whatever the historic circumstances in which it finds itself”, K. Marx, Letter to editor of the Russian newspaper paper Otetchestvennye Zapiskym, 1877. He explains that his ideas are based upon a concrete study of the actual conditions in Europe.
- Marxism and Class, Gender and Race: Rethinking the Trilogy, by Martha E. Gimenez, Published (2001) in Race, Gender and Class, Vol. 8, No. 2, pp. 23-33.
- Lenin 1967 (1913). p. 07.
- Marx 1849.
- “Alienation” entry, A Dictionary of Sociology
- Joseph McCarney: Ideology and False Consciousness, April 2005
- Engels: Letter to Franz Mehring, (London 14 July 1893), Donna Torr, translator, in Marx and Engels Correspondence, International Publishers, 1968
- Karl Marx, The German Ideology.
- Castro and Ramonet 2009. p. 100.
- Lenin 1967 (1913). p. 35.
- Lenin 1967 (1913). p. 35-36.