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Marxism, economic and political philosophy named for Karl Marx. It is also known as scientific (as opposed to utopian) socialism. Marxism has had a profound impact on contemporary culture; modern communism is based on it, and most modern socialist theories derive from it (see socialism). It has also had tremendous effect on academia, influencing disciplines from economics to philosophy and literary history.

Although no one treatise by Marx and his coworker Friedrich Engels covers all aspects of Marxism, the Communist Manifesto suggests many of its premises, and the monumental Das Kapital develops many of them most rigorously. Many elements of the Marxist system were drawn from earlier economic and historical thought, notably that of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, the comte de Saint-Simon, J. C. L. de Sismondi, David Ricardo, Charles Fourier, and Louis Blanc; but Marxist analysis as fully developed by Marx and Engels was unquestionably original.

Tenets of Marxism

Dialectical Materialism

The Marxist philosophical method is dialectical materialism, a reversal of the dialectical idealism of Hegel. Dialectical materialism presumes the primacy of economic determinants in history. Through dialectical materialism was developed the fundamental Marxist premise that the history of society is the inexorable “history of class struggle.” According to this premise, a specific class could rule only so long as it best represented the economically productive forces of society; when it became outmoded it would be destroyed and replaced. From this continuing dynamic process a classless society would eventually emerge. In modern capitalist society, the bourgeois (capitalist) class had destroyed and replaced the unproductive feudal nobility and had performed the economically creative task of establishing the new industrial order. The stage was thus set for the final struggle between the bourgeoisie, which had completed its historic role, and the proletariat, composed of the industrial workers, or makers of goods, which had become the true productive class.

Economic and Political Theories

Supporting Marxism's historical premises are its economic theories. Of central importance are the labor theory of value and the idea of surplus value. Marxism supposes that the value of a commodity is determined by the amount of labor required for its manufacture. The value of the commodities purchasable by the worker's wages is less than the value of the commodities he produces; the difference, called surplus value, represents the profit of the capitalist. Thus the bourgeois class has flourished through exploitation of the proletariat.

The capitalist system and the bourgeoisie were seen as riven with weaknesses and contradictions, which would become increasingly severe as industrialization progressed and would manifest themselves in increasingly severe economic crises. According to the Communist Manifesto, it would be in a highly industrialized nation, where the crises of capitalism and the consciousness of the workers were far advanced, that the proletarian overthrow of bourgeois society would first succeed. Although this process was inevitable, Marxists were to speed it by bringing about the international union of workers, by supporting (for expediency) whatever political party favored “the momentary interests of the working class,” and by helping to prepare workers for their revolutionary role.

The proletariat, after becoming the ruling class, was “to centralize all instruments of production in the hands of the state” and to increase productive forces at a rapid rate. Once the bourgeoisie had been defeated, there would be no more class divisions, since the means of production would not be owned by any group. The coercive state, formerly a weapon of class oppression, would be replaced by a rational structure of economic and social cooperation and integration. Such bourgeois institutions as the family and religion, which had served to perpetuate bourgeois dominance, would vanish, and each individual would find true fulfillment. Thus social and economic utopia would be achieved, although its exact form could not be predicted.

Influence of Marxism

Political Influence

The first impact of Marxism was felt in continental Europe. By the late 19th cent., through the influence of the Internationals, it had permeated the European trade union movement, and the major socialist parties (see Socialist parties, in European history) were committed to it in theory if not in practice. A major division soon appeared, however, between those socialists who believed that violent revolution was inevitable and those, most notably Eduard Bernstein, who argued that socialism could be achieved by evolution; both groups could cite Marx as their authority because he was inconsistent in his writings on this question.

The success of the revolutionary socialists (hereafter called Communists) in the Russian Revolution and the establishment of an authoritarian Communist state in Russia split the movement irrevocably. In disassociating themselves from dictatorial Russian Communism, many of the democratic socialist parties also moved slowly away from Marxist theory. Communists, on the other hand, regarded Marxism as their official dogma, and it is chiefly under their aegis that it spread through the world, although its concepts of class struggle and exploitation have helped to determine alternative policies of welfare and development in many nations besides those adhering to Communism. However, although useful as a revolutionary ethic and also as a frame of reference and a cue to policy, Marxism has found far less practical application than is often presumed.

The Soviet, Chinese, and other Communist states were at most only partly structured along Marxist “classless” lines, and while such Communist leaders as Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, Joseph Stalin, and Mao Zedong staunchly claimed Marxist orthodoxy for their pronouncements, they in fact greatly stretched the doctrine in attempting to mold it to their own uses. The evolution of varied forms of welfare capitalism, the improved condition of workers in industrial societies, and the recent demise of the Communist bloc in Eastern Europe and Central Asia have tended to discredit Marx's dire and deterministic economic predictions. The Soviet and Chinese Communist regimes did not result in the disappearance of the state, but in the erection of huge, monolithic, and largely inefficient state structures.

In the Third World, a legacy of colonialism and anti-imperialist struggle have given Marxism popular support. In Africa, Marxism has had notable impact in such nations as Ethiopia, Benin, Angola, Kenya, and Senegal. In less stable societies Marxism's combination of materialist analysis with a militant sense of justice remains a powerful attraction. Its influence has significantly weakened, however, and seems likely to fade even more since the decline of the Communist bloc in Eastern Europe. Indeed, the fall of Communism has led many to predict a similar fate for Marxism. Much of Marxism, because of its close association with Communism, has already been popularly discredited.

Philosophical Influence

In recent years, many Western intellectuals have championed Marxism and repudiated Communism, objecting to the manner in which the two terms are often used interchangeably. A number have turned to Marx's other writings and explored the present-day value of such Marxist concepts as alienation. Among prominent Western Marxists were the Hungarian philosopher György Lukács and the Italian political philosopher Antonio Gramsci, both of whom viewed Marxism as a liberation from the rule of political economy and believed in its relationship to the social consciousness. Marxism's influence can be found in disciplines as diverse as economics, history, art, literary criticism, and sociology. German sociologist Max Weber, Frankfurt school theorists such as Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, British economist Joan Robinson, German dramatist Bertolt Brecht, British literary critic Frederic Jameson, and the French historians of the Annales school have all produced work drawn from Marxist perspectives.


See S. Avineri, The Social and Political Thought of Karl Marx (1968); G. Lukács, History and Class Consciousness (tr. 1971); P. Anderson, Considerations on Western Marxism (1976); R. Williams, Marxism and Literature (1977); D. McLellan, ed., Marx: The First Hundred Years (1983); A. W. Wood, Karl Marx (1985); J. Elster, An Introduction to Karl Marx (1986); B. Mazlish, The Meaning of Karl Marx (1987); T. Carver, A Marx Dictionary (1987); A. Ryan, On Marx: Revolutionary and Utopian (2014); G. S. Jones, Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion (2016); S. Avineri, Karl Marx: Philosophy and Revolution (2019); see also bibliographies under Marx, Karl; communism; socialism.

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the total body of mainly theoretical work which aims to develop, amend or revise the original work of MARX by practitioners who identify themselves with the term. The term Marxist can be applied to such work or authors, but sometimes has a connotation of political commitment or activity which not all authors may share. Thus, for example, some academic sociologists may see themselves as working within the issues of Marxism, but reject the term Marxist because they do not share the political aims or commitments of Marxist organizations: Marxian may be the preferred description of their work. But there is variability in the use of these terms, in part reflecting the various nuances which have emerged within Marxism in the 20th-century, and the political problems which academics and intellectuals have had in various countries when identified with Marxism. ‘I am interested in the problems of Marxism and find it philosophically and theoretically valid, but I am not a Marxist’ might be how a Marxian sociologist would express the nuances.

It is only from the 1960s that Marxism has had a significant influence in Western Europe and the US within academic institutions (see MARXIST SOCIOLOGY). Before then, and outside of the Soviet bloc, Marxism's major developments came from intellectuals engaged in political organizations, and this influence continues alongside contributors in academia.

The main varieties of Marxism which have emerged in the 20th-century are:

  1. Soviet Marxism, which from the 1930s was dominated by STALINISM and developed a rigid 'S cientific’ and materialist view, seeing the natural sciences as the basic method of knowledge, but which became more varied after the death of Stalin;
  2. Trotskyism (see TROTSKY), which developed critical analyses of the nature of the USSR and of the changing nature of 20th-century capitalism, and which sees itself as the main heir of the Marxist-Leninist tradition, in terms of continuing to emphasize the importance of a revolutionary VANGUARD PARTY and the revolutionary potential of the working class;
  3. Western Marxism, which has been the main European intellectual current and most widely influential in academic spheres. Leading exponents were Antonio GRAMSCI, Karl Korsch (1886-1961), Georg LUKACS, Herbert MARCUSE and the FRANKFURT SCHOOL OF CRITICAL THEORY. All these were important for opening philosophical debates especially concerning the ‘humanistic’ or 'S cientific’ nature of Marxism, re-examining the Hegelian (see HEGEL) basis of Marxism, reacting to the crude materialism of Soviet Marxism, developing the analysis of culture, literature and psychology within Marxism, being more open to non-Marxist thought and attempting to incorporate it within Marxism. Examples of such work are Gramsci's analyses of the state and political processes, and Marcuse's use of Freudian analysis and SOCIAL PHENOMENOLOGY. From the 1960s, this current became more diverse within Europe, with the emergence of structuralist Marxism, especially from the work of Louis ALTHUSSER, who reacted against the perceived ‘voluntarism’ and ‘humanism’ of the earlier writers, and the rise of a renewed emphasis on Marxist political economy and the analysis of the dynamics of capitalism;
  4. Third World Marxism, concerned especially with exploring the differences between capitalism in the metropolitan and in the colonial and neocolonial countries, the relationship between national determination and the achievement of socialism, the role of the peasantry in the achievement of socialism, and the consequences of these questions for political action and organizations. These analyses showed that the predominant European varieties of Marxism did not provide adequate answers to these problems, and a large body of theoretical and political work has emerged on this from the 1920s. From Indian Marxists have come important analyses of the nature of colonial society and the peculiarities of capitalism within imperially dominated countries (see IMPERIALISM). From China emerged the theory and politics of MAOISM. From Latin America have come Marxist-inspired analyses of world capitalist development (see DEPENDENCY THEORY) and the political practice of Castroism, as a result of the experience of organizing revolutionary activity amongst the peasantry in prolonged guerrilla warfare; from Africa has come the theory of African Socialism (see SOCIALISM). Many countries contain major Marxist writers and thinkers who have contributed to a wide range of issues but who are mainly influential in their own society or region. The above does not exhaust all the varieties of Marxism. In Eastern Europe in the 1970s, important analyses developed countering the official Soviet communism (e.g. see NEW CLASS). Everywhere the growth of academic work has led to intense debate such that in academia there now exist many varieties of Marxism. Political beliefs, philosophical criteria, as well as questions of sociological relevance influence how these are viewed, but undoubtedly Marxism is now an important dimension of social scientific and sociological thinking, raising many questions not raised in other approaches.
Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000


the economic and political theory and practice originated by the German political philosophers Karl Marx (1818--83) and Friedrich Engels (1820--95), that holds that actions and human institutions are economically determined, that the class struggle is the basic agency of historical change, and that capitalism will ultimately be superseded by communism
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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