Philosophy | By Branch/Doctrine | By Historical Period | By Movement/School | By Individual Philosopher
Philosophy: The Basics
A huge subject broken down into manageable chunks
Random Philosophy Quote:
Introduction | Historical Materialism | Class Analysis | History of Marxism | Recent Developments in Marxism | Criticisms of Marxism | Types of Marxism
Introduction Back to Top

Marxism is an economic and social system derived from the work of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (1829 - 1895). It is a theoretical-practical framework based on the analysis of "the conflicts between the powerful and the subjugated" with working class self-emancipation as its goal.

It asserts that the Capitalist mode of production enables the bourgeoisie (or owners of capital) to exploit the proletariat (or workers) and that class struggle by the proletariat must be the central element in social and historical change. According to Marx, a socialist revolution must occur, in order to establish a "dictatorship of the proletariat" with the ultimate goal of public ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange.

Classical Marxism is a variety of Socialism and provides the intellectual base for various forms of Communism. It was conceived (as to some extent was Anarchism) as a reaction against the rampant Capitalism and Liberalism of 19th Century Europe. It is grounded in Materialism and it is committed to political practice as the end goal of all thought.

As a philosopher, Marx was influenced by a number of different thinkers, including: German philosophers (e.g. Immanuel Kant, Georg Hegel and Ludwig Feuerbach); British political economists (e.g. Adam Smith and David Ricardo); and French social theorists (e.g. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Charles Fourier, Henri de Saint-Simon, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Flora Tristan and Louis Blanc).

The defining document of Marxism and Communism is "The Communist Manifesto", published jointly by Marx and Engels in 1848. The first volume of "Das Kapital" (Marx's ambitious treatise on political economy and critical analysis of Capitalism and its practical economic application) was published in 1867, with two more volumes edited and published after his death by Engels. For the most part, these works were collaborations and, while Marx is the more famous of the two, he was strongly influenced by Engels' earlier works, and Engels was also responsible for much of the interpretation and editing of Marx's work.

Some of the basic ideas behind Marxism include:

  • Exploitation and Alienation: Capitalism is based on the exploitation of workers by the owners of capital, due to the fact that the workers' labor power generates a surplus value greater than the workers' wages. This expropriation of surpluses leads to increasing alienation and resentment of workers, because they have no control over the labor or product which they produce (a systematic result of the Capitalist system, it is argued).
  • labor Theory of Value: The value of a commodity can be objectively measured by the average amount of labor hours that are required to produce that commodity. This is similar to the value theory established by classical economists like Adam Smith and David Ricardo (1772 - 1823), although for Marx it is socially necessary labor which is important (i.e. the amount needed to produce, and reproduce, a commodity under average working conditions).
  • Base and Superstructure: Relations are established among people as they produce and reproduce the material requirements of life, and these relations form the economic basis of society. On this "base" arises a "superstructure" of political and legal institutions, and a social consciousness of religious, philosophical, ideological and other ideas. Any social revolution (caused by conflict between the development of material productive forces and the relations of production) will result in a change in the economic basis and thence to the transformation of the superstructure.
  • Class Consciousness: Any social class possesses an awareness (of itself, of the conditions of life, and of the social world around it), and its capacity to act in its own rational interests is based on this awareness. Thus, class consciousness must be attained before any class may mount a successful revolution.
  • Ideology: The ruling class foists the dominant ideology on all members of that society in order to make its own interests appear to be the interests of all. Therefore, the ideology of a society can be used to confuse alienated groups and create a false consciousness (such as commodity fetishism, where social relationships are transformed into apparently objective relationships between commodities or money).
  • Historical and Dialectical Materialism: This refers to the adaptation by Marx and Engels of Georg Hegel's theory of Dialectics, the concept that any idea or event (the thesis) generates its opposite (the antithesis), eventually leading to a reconciliation of opposites (a new, more advanced synthesis). Marx realized that this could also be applied to material matters like economics, hence the label Dialectical Materialism. The application of the principle of Dialectical Materialism to history and sociology, the main context in which Marx used it, is known as Historical Materialism (see the section below for details). The resulting theory posits that history is the product of class struggle and obeys the general Hegelian principle of the development of thesis and antithesis.
Historical Materialism Back to Top

Historical Materialism (or the Materialist Conception of History) is Marx's theory of history, his attempt to make history scientific, and it underlies much of the rest of his work. It is based on the principle of Dialectical Materialism (a synthesis of Hegel's theory of Dialectics and the idea that social and other phenomena are essentially material in nature, rather than ideal or spiritual) as it applies to history and societies.

The main thrust of the theory is that history is ultimately about economics. It holds that class struggle (the evolving conflict between classes with opposing interests) is the means of bringing about changes in a society's mode of production, and that it structures each historical period and drives historical change. Material conditions and social relations are therefore historically malleable because developments and changes in human societies are dependent on the way in which humans collectively produce the means to live.

Marx's argument is essentially that, for human beings to survive, they need to produce and reproduce the material requirements of life, and that this production is carried out through a division of labor based on very definite production relations between people. These relations form the economic base of society, and are themselves determined by the mode of production which is in force (e.g. tribal society, feudalism, capitalism, socialism). Societies, and their cultural and institutional superstructures, naturally move from stage to stage as the dominant class is displaced by a new emerging class in a social and political upheaval.

Marx and Engels identified six successive stages (including one transitional stage) in a society's development:

  • Primitive Communism, as seen in co-operative tribal societies.
  • Slave Society, which develops when the tribe becomes a city-state, and aristocracy is born.
  • Feudalism, where aristocracy is the ruling class, and merchants develop into capitalists.
  • Capitalism, where capitalists are the ruling class, and create and employ the true working class.
  • Socialism (or "Dictatorship of the Proletariat"), where the workers gain class consciousness, overthrow the capitalists and take control over the state.
  • Communism, where a classless and stateless society has evolved.
Class Analysis Back to Top

Marx believed that the identity of a social class is derived from its relationship to the means of production, rather than being determined by wealth alone. He described several social classes in capitalist societies, including the following:

  • Proletariat: workers who sell their labor power for wages, but do not own the means of production.
  • Bourgeoisie: those who own the means of production (or capital) and buy labor power from the proletariat.
  • Petit Bourgeoisie: a less wealthy sub-class of the bourgeoisie, those who employ labor, but may also work themselves (e.g. small proprietors, land-holding peasants, trade workers).
  • Lumpenproletariat: those who have no stake in the economic system, are disconnected from the means of production, and will sell themselves to the highest bidder (e.g. criminals, vagabonds, beggars, etc).
  • Landlords: a class of people that were historically important, of which some still retain some of their wealth and power.
  • Peasants and farmers: a disorganized class that Marx saw as incapable of carrying out change.
History of Marxism Back to Top

The early history of Marxist thought is essentially the history of Socialism, which has been detailed elsewhere.

Some Marxists see the French Revolution of 1789 - 1799 as a proletarian revolution in accordance with Marxist principles, but the reality is much more complex and there is much contention over the claim. Likewise, the American Revolution of 1775 - 1783 was essentially a war of independence and not a grass-roots rebellion in the Marxist sense.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (1829 - 1895) first met in person in 1844, and they soon discovered that they had similar views on philosophy in general and on Capitalism in particular, and decided to work together, culminating in the groundbreaking "The Communist Manifesto" (published jointly by Marx and Engels in 1848), which became the defining document of Marxism and Communism. They further collaborated on "Das Kapital", (Marx's ambitious treatise on political economy and critical analysis of Capitalism), the first volume of which was published in 1867, with two more volumes edited and published after his death by Engels.

The first large-scale attempt to put Marxist ideas about a workers' state into practice came with the Russian Revolution (or October Revolution) of 1917, led by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (1870 - 1924) and the Bolshevik Party (even though Russia was not an ideal candidate with a fully developed Capitalist system, as Marxist theory prescribed). Despite Lenin's exhortations, however, other countries did not follow suit, and attempted Socialist revolutions in Germany and other western countries failed, leaving the newly-formed Soviet Union on its own.

Even in the early days of the Soviet Union, there were those, notably Leon Trotsky (1879 - 1940) and Rosa Luxemburg (1870 - 1919), who claimed that the form of Communism adopted there (especially after Joseph Stalin took control after Lenin's death in 1924) did not conform to Marxist theory, and much of the rest of the history of Socialism and Communism is replete with different factions claiming their legitimacy from Marxism.

Following World War II, Marxist ideology, often with Soviet military backing, spawned a rise in revolutionary Communist parties all over the world, some of which were eventually able to gain power (e.g. the People's Republic of China, Vietnam, Romania, East Germany, Albania, Cambodia, Ethiopia, South Yemen, Yugoslavia, Cuba), and establish their own version of a Marxist state. Many of these self-proclaimed Marxist nations (often styled People's Republics) eventually became authoritarian states with stagnating economies, which caused much debate about whether Marxism was doomed in practice, or whether these nations were in fact not led by "true Marxists".

By 1990, the Warsaw Pact countries of Eastern Europe had all abandoned Communist rule, and in 1991 the Soviet Union itself dissolved, leaving China, Cuba and some isolated states in Asia and Africa as the remaining bastions of Communism, although in most cases any identification with classical Marxism had long since disappeared.

Recent Developments in Marxism Back to Top

In terms of the philosophical (as opposed to political) development of Marxism in the 20th Century, the first major figure was perhaps the Hungarian György (George) Lukács (1885 - 1971). His philosophy, which came to be known as Western Marxism, stressed the earlier Hegelian and humanist elements of Marx's work. Lukács' 1923 "History and Class Consciousness" is often considered a milestone in Marxist thought, with its themes of class consciousness (self-awareness of social class and of the role assigned to it by Marxism), reification (the attribution of human or living qualities to objects and social relations) and totality (seeing the whole picture of society at once, in all its complexity).

The Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci (1891 - 1931) spent much of his adult life in Mussolini's fascist prisons, but he has come to be seen as a highly original thinker within the Marxist tradition. His important philosophical legacy includes the introduction into Marxist thought of the idea of hegemony (the way in which the ruling class directs and organizes society through its cultural power). He saw cultural hegemony as an important means of maintaining the status quo in a capitalist society, pointing out that the bourgeoisie did not rule by force alone, but also by consent, forming political alliances with other groups and working ideologically to dominate society. Like Lukács, he strongly believed in the organic unity of social life.

The Frankfurt School, based at the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt in the 1930s, consisted of a nucleus of neo-Marxist philosophers, including Theodor Adorno (1903 - 1969), Max Horkheimer (1895 - 1973), Leo Löwenthal (1900 - 1993), Erich Fromm (1900 - 1980), Herbert Marcuse (1898 - 1979) and Jürgen Habermas (1929- ), who met to discuss the perceived failure of Marxism and Communism in the West and to try to understand the success of Capitalism and Fascism and the emerging "mass society" of America. The Frankfurt School developed what they called a Critical Theory of Marxism, a social theory orientated toward critiquing and changing (rather than just describing or explaining) the totality of society, by means of integrating all the major social sciences, including economics, sociology, history, political science, anthropology, and psychology.

Jürgen Habermas, one of the younger members of the Frankfurt School, in particular, went on to extend Critical Theory and effectively attempted no less than a complete reconstruction of the foundations of Western Marxism, attempting to marry the determinist strands of the Frankfurt School with the action-based ideas of its American opponents (although his writing is considered difficult and demanding).

The French-Algerian Louis Althusser (1918 - 1990) developed another influential strand of Marxist philosophy which intersected with linguistics and Structuralism, and which is sometimes referred to as Structural Marxism. He presented a highly scientific re-working and re-analysis of Marxist thought, which he claimed provided not only a model of the economy but also a description of the structure and development of a whole society.

Criticisms of Marxism Back to Top

Criticisms of Marxist principles and theory (as opposed to the practical aspects of 20th Century Communist states - see Criticisms of Communism) include the following:

  • The promise of a glorious, yet imaginary, future: Some have argued that, like Fascism, Nationalism and many religions, Marxism offers a vision of an unachievable perfect future, and keeps its subjects in thrall to it by devaluing the past and the present. It claims to represent a universal truth which explains everything and can cure every ill, and any apparent deviations or under-performance are explained away by casuistry and emotional appeals.
  • An incomplete ideology: Marx and Engels never dedicated much work to show how exactly a Communist economy would function in practice, leaving Socialism a "negative ideology" (having removed the market price system, but with nothing to take its place).
  • The assumption that human nature is completely determined by the environment: Some Marxists, including Trotsky, believed that all the social, political and intellectual life processes in general are conditioned by the socio-economic base and the mode of production of material life, which rather devalues humanity and the importance of the lives and rights of human beings.
  • Anarchist criticisms: Many Anarchists and Libertarian Socialists reject the need for a transitory state phase and often criticize Marxism and Communism for being too authoritarian. Some Anarcho-Primitivists reject left wing politics in general, seeing it as corrupt and claiming that civilization is un-reformable.
  • An attack on human rights and liberty: Some critics have argued that Marx's concept of freedom is really just a defense of tyranny and oppression, and not an expansion of freedoms as he claimed.
  • Alleged anti-Semitism: Some commentators have interpreted many of Marx's pronouncements on Jews as being anti-Semitic, claiming that he saw Jews as the embodiment of Capitalism and the creators of all its evils. Others, however, hotly dispute this interpretation.
  • The need for violent revolution: Many Socialist reformists (e.g. Democratic Socialists and Social Democrats) reject the idea that socialism can be accomplished only through class conflict and violent revolution take issue with the Marxist requirement for a violent proletarian revolution, arguing that Capitalism can be reformed by gradual democratic changes.
  • The theory of Historical Materialism is flawed: Some critics have argued that the concept of Historial Materialism which underlies much of Marxist theory is flawed, or that such a method can be twisted into trying to force the course of history in a particular direction, or that in practice it leads to Nihilism.
  • Marxist class analysis is flawed: Some argue that class is not the most fundamental inequality in history, and that detailed analysis of many historical periods fails to find support for class or social evolution as used by Marxists.
  • Unfulfilled predictions: Marx made numerous predictions in expounding his theories (e.g. increasing class polarization, proletarian revolutions occurring first in the most industrialized nations, increasing improvement of machinery making the livelihoods of workers more and more precarious, etc), some of which are debatable, while others have been clearly proven wrong. It is argued that this is further evidence that Historical Materialism is a flawed theory.
  • The theory is not scientifically rigorous: The theory of Historical Materialism, although initially genuinely scientific, degenerated into pseudoscience and dogma when predictions were not borne out and ad hoc adaptations and revisions had to be made to fit the facts. Some critics have also argued that, if anything, the older utopian socialists were more scientific in their approach than Marx, in that at least their attempts to set up socialist communes followed the scientific method of experimentation, hypothesis and testing, whereas Marxism was just an untestable and hence unscientific prophecy.
  • The evidence for the "end of history": Some critics have argued that the growing spread of liberal democracy around the world, and the apparent lack of major revolutionary movements developing in them, suggest that Capitalism or social democracy is likely to be the final form of human government, rather than Marxism or Communism, which claims to be an "end of history" philosophy.
Types of Marxism Back to Top

Many different types of Socialism and Communism developed from Marxist thought, but several forms of Marxism itself can also be identified:

  • Classical Marxism: The initial theory as conceived by Marx and Engels, as described above.

  • Marxism-Leninism: The Communist ideological stream, loosely modeled on Marxist theory, that emerged as the mainstream tendency during the post-Lenin era of Joseph Stalin (1878 - 1953) in the Soviet Union. It is mainly associated with Stalin, although it is debatable to what extent he actually followed the principles of either Marx or Lenin.

  • Western Marxism: A term used to describe a wide variety of Marxist theories based in Western and Central Europe (and more recently North America), in contrast with the philosophy of the Soviet Union or the People's Republic of China. It brought Marxism into the mainstream of European culture. Its proponents have been mainly professional academics, who view Marx as primarily a philosopher rather than a revolutionary, and who stress the Hegelian and humanist elements of his thought. The most prominent were perhaps the Hungarian György Lukács (1885 - 1971) and the German Karl Korsch (1886 - 1961).

  • Libertarian Marxism: A school of Marxism that describes itself as taking a less authoritarian view of Marxist theory than conventional currents such as Stalinism, Maoism, Trotskyism and other well-known forms of Marxism-Leninism. It emphasizes the ability of the working class to forge its own destiny without the need for a revolutionary party or state to mediate or aid its liberation.

  • Structural Marxism: An approach to Marxism based on the Structuralism of the French theorist Louis Althusser (1918 - 1990) and his students. His detailed re-analysis of the Marx's entire oeuvre led him to realize that it provides not only a model of the economy but also a description of the structure and development of a whole society. It was influential, particularly in France, during the late 1960s and 1970s.

  • Neo-Marxism: A 20th Century New Left school of Marxism that hearkens back to the early writings of Marx (before the influence of Engels), as well as attempting to incorporate elements of modern psychology and sociology into orthodox Marxist thought. It rejects the perceived economic determinism of later Marx, focusing instead on a non-physical, psychological revolution, and is more Libertarian in nature, and related to strains of Anarchism. The Frankfurt School, based at the University of Frankfurt am Main in Germany from the 1930's to 1950's, was instrumental in its development.

  • Cultural Marxism: Another 20th Century form of Marxism which adds an analysis of the role of the media, art, theatre, film and other cultural institutions in a society, often with an added emphasis on race and gender in addition to class.

  • Analytical Marxism: A style of thinking about Marxism that was prominent amongst English-speaking philosophers and social scientists during the 1980s. It claimed "clear and rigorous thinking about questions that are usually blanketed by ideological fog".

  • Post-Marxism: The theoretical work of philosophers and social theorists who have built their theories upon Classical Marxism to some extent, but who have exceeded the limits of those theories in ways that puts them outside of Marxism.

  • Marxist Humanism: A branch of Marxism that primarily focuses on Marx's earlier writings, (especially the "Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts" of 1844 in which he develops his theory of alienation), as opposed to his later works, which are considered to be concerned more with his structural conception of capitalist society.

  • Marxist Feminism: A branch of Feminist theory which focuses on the dismantling of Capitalism as a way to liberate women. Marxist Feminism asserts that private property, which gives rise to economic inequality, dependence, political confusion and ultimately unhealthy social relations between men and women, is the root of the oppression of women.

Back to Top of Page
Philosophy | What is Philosophy? | By Branch/Doctrine | By Historical Period | By Movement/School | By Individual Philosopher
Thank you for supporting philosophy!

The articles on this site are © 2008-.
If you quote this material please be courteous and provide a link.
Citations | FAQs | Inquiries | Privacy Policy