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Marxist Sociology

Marxist Sociology

Marx’s contributions

Marx’s influence in the nineteenth century

Divergence of Marxism and sociology

Marxist influence since the 1930s

Defining Marxist sociology


Karl Marx introduced into the social sciences of his day a new method of inquiry, new concepts, and a number of bold hypotheses to explain the rise, development, and decline of particular forms of society; all of which came to exercise, in the later decades of the nineteenth century, a profound and extensive influence upon the writing of history, political science, and sociology. Marx was also a man of action, a revolutionary, whose political creed stood in a complex and uneasy relationship to his scientific investigations, and his followers, the Marxists of various hues, have tended toward one or the other limit of his ideas, to doctrinal ex-position, or to the furtherance of a science of society. Marxist sociology has been one of the principal battlefields in this conflict between objective science and political commitment.

Marx’s contributions

On the side of scientific method, Marx made two important contributions. One was to adopt, and to maintain consistently in his work, a view of human societies as wholes or systems in which social groups, institutions, beliefs, and doctrines are interrelated and have to be studied in their interrelations rather than treated in isolation, as in the conventional separate histories of politics, law, religion, or thought. The second contribution was the view of societies as inherently mutable systems, in which changes are produced largely by internal contradictions and conflicts, and the assumption that such changes, if observed in a large number of instances, will show a sufficient degree of regularity to allow the formulation of general statements about their causes and consequences.

Historical materialism

Marx’s ideas, which played an essential part in the formation of modern sociology, had been adumbrated in the works of earlier thinkers as diverse in other respects as Hegel, Saint-Simon, and Adam Ferguson, all of whom greatly influenced Marx; and they resemble in some aspects the ideas which Comte and Spencer propounded in their attempts to lay the foundations of sociology. But Marx elaborated his conception of the nature of society, and of the appropriate means to study it, in a more precise, and above all more empirical, fashion than did his predecessors. He introduced an entirely new element by attributing to the characteristics of the economic system and to the derived relations between social classes a predominant influence in determining the structure of each society. It was this feature of Marx’s method, to be known subsequently by the somewhat misleading term “historical materialism,” which was widely accepted by later sociologists as offering a more promising starting point for exact and realistic investigations of the causes of social change than could be found in such notions as the three stages of man’s intellectual development (Comte) or the process of superorganic evolution (Spencer).

Social class and social conflict

Marx’s theories followed to a great extent from the above methodological conceptions, which he referred to as the “guiding thread” in his studies (1859, preface). The significance of the economic system of society was elaborated in a theory which traced the formation of the principal social groups—the classes—to the forms of ownership of the means of production and the forms of labor of nonowners. The idea of social change resulting from internal conflicts was developed in a theory of class struggles which made social classes the principal, if not the sole, agents of political activity; and this conception in turn led to the distinction between ruling and oppressed classes and to a distinctive theory of the state. The conviction that social changes display a regular pattern led Marx to construct, in broad outline, a historical sequence of the main types of society, proceeding from the simple, undifferentiated society of “primitive communism” to the complex class society of modern capitalism; and he sketched an explanation of the great historical transformations which demolished old forms of society and created new ones in terms of economic changes which he regarded as general and constant in their operation.

Although this theoretical scheme was intended to have a universal character, Marx actually employed it in a partial manner. His own researches were limited almost entirely to the nineteenth-century capitalist societies, and he gave only fragmentary accounts of the other types of society, in brief allusions in Capital, in newspaper articles and correspondence, and in manuscripts which were published after his death (see especially 1857–1858). Furthermore, some of his most important theoretical ideas were derived immediately from the observation of modern societies, and they fit closely only these particular societies. His theory of social classes applies in the main to the formation and development of the modern bourgeoisie and proletariat; it is not so helpful when applied to the phenomena of a caste system. Clearly, the theory of social conflict originated in an interpretation of the French Revolution, the materials for which had been prepared by earlier historians, and it was developed further by observation of the class struggles which accompanied the growth of the labor movement in western Europe.

The concept of ideology, similarly, originated in Marx’s criticism of some contemporary social doctrines—utilitarianism, the “critical philosophy” of the Young Hegelians, political economy in some of its aspects—which he regarded as concealing or distorting the real relationships between men and the actual social conflicts in the European societies of his time (Marx & Engels 1845-1846). It is not a concept which Marx brought, or tried to bring, within the framework of a general sociological theory of knowledge. This intense preoccupation with the origins and development of industrial capitalism is, indeed, a feature of Marx’s theories which helps to account for the interest which they still excite. It has enabled Marxists to represent his thought as a modern philosophy that is closely linked with the progress of science and industry, and it has enabled sociologists to discover in it the elements of a theory of industrialization and economic growth.

Marx’s influence in the nineteenth century

Marx’s scientific writings were not widely noticed or criticized during his lifetime, and he became known principally as the author of a political doctrine expounded in the Communist Manifesto in 1848 and as one of the animators of the International Working Men’s Association. Furthermore, the early expounders of his ideas, other than Friedrich Engels, were themselves political leaders of the growing working class movement in Europe—men such as August Bebel, Karl Kautsky, and Eduard Bernstein in Germany; Jules Guesde and Paul Lafargue in France—rather than scholars.

Only in the late 1880s did Marx’s theories begin to claim the serious attention of academic social scientists. The first major work of sociology to recognize his importance and to display the influence of his thought was Ferdinand Tönnies’ Community and Society (1887). In this book Tönnies expounded his distinction between two forms of society—“community” (Gemeinschaft) and “association” (Gesellschaft)—which has become one of the classic themes of sociology. His debt to Marx is indicated by the importance which he assigned to the system of production in determining these different forms of society and by the character of his analysis of modern capitalism. Much later Tönnies published an excellent short study of Marx’s life and work (1921), in which he examined more fully the nature and limitations of Marx’s contribution to sociology.

A more general recognition by the German academic world of Marx’s importance as a sociological thinker became apparent in the 1890s with the publication of a long essay by Werner Sombart on Marx’s theory of modern capitalism, books by Rudolf Stammler and Thomas G. Masaryk on the methodological foundations of his theories, and numerous discussions in scholarly journals. At this time Marx’s work also began to be discussed by eminent scholars in other European countries: in Italy by Antonio Labriola (1895–1896), Benedetto Croce (in several essays which are collected in Croce 1900), Giovanni Gentile, and Vilfredo Pareto; and in France by Georges Sorel, who expounded Marx’s theories in a number of articles from 1894 on ward and published in his journal, Le devenir social, some notable essays on Marx by European scholars as well as his own reviews, from a Marxist standpoint, of the work of contemporary sociologists. Marx’s sociology also figured prominently in the contributions to the first international congress of sociology held in 1894.

Divergence of Marxism and sociology

By the beginning of the twentieth century, therefore, Marx had been generally accepted as the author of a profound and original system of sociology, yet in the following period the influence of Marxism upon sociology diminished rather than increased. Many of the writers who had first drawn attention to the importance of Marx’s theories—among them Croce, Sorel, and Pareto—now became severe critics of Marxist thought and advanced new social and historical theories which, however much they might owe to the initial shock which Marx’s ideas had produced, were conceived in an entirely different fashion. On the other hand, a number of influential Marxist thinkers came to regard more critically the claims of sociology as a positive science and to insist more strongly upon the character of Marxism as a revolutionary social philosophy.

In the early 1900s only the small but distinguished group of thinkers who became known later as the Austro-Marxists were engaged in an attempt to set forth and develop the sociological elements in Marx’s thought. Max Adler (1925), a philosopher deeply influenced by Neo-Kantianism, represented Marx as having established the epistemological foundations of social science, as Kant had done for the natural sciences; he saw in Marxism a sociological system of causal explanation. Another member of the group, Karl Renner (1904), produced what is still the outstanding Marxist contribution to the sociology of law, a study of the effect of economic forces and social changes upon the working of modern legal institutions. The writings of the Austro-Marxists, however, did not arrest the growing divergence between Marxism and sociology, which appears most clearly in the contrast between the work of Max Weber and Pareto in sociology and the fresh expositions of Marxist thought by Karl Korsch and György Lukács.

Sociology—Weber and Pareto

Marxism was unquestionably one of the strongest influences upon the work of Max Weber, much of which is devoted either to testing, in a particular context, some part of Marx’s theories, or to reassessing in a more general way his concepts and methods. In the first of these directions, Weber’s best-known study is that on the origins of modern capitalism (1904–1905), which is intended to show that a body of religious ideas (the Protestant ethic) played a vital part in the development of European capitalism, alongside the economic changes and the rise of a new class, through the inculcation of new attitudes toward wealth, science, and work. From this first revision of Marx’s economic interpretation of history, Weber went on to examine on a wider scale the social influence of religious ideas, to amend and supplement the Marxist theory of classes, to outline a radically different theory of political power, and to suggest an interpretation of modern European history as a movement, not toward socialism but, rather, toward greater bureaucratic regulation.

In the sphere of methodology, Weber’s preoccupation with historical materialism is evident in his discussion (1907) of a book by Stammler and especially in an editorial in the Archiv für Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik in 1904, in which he observed that while the materialist conception of history should be rejected as a comprehensive Weltanschauung, the interpretation of historical events from the aspect of their economic conditioning or relevance may be accepted as a useful methodological principle, above all in the study of modern societies.

The impression made by Marxist ideas is equally clear in the earlier writings of Pareto, who singled out, as Marx’s chief contribution to sociology, the theory of class conflict (1902–1903). This provided the basis for Pareto’s own later elaboration of the idea of the struggle between elites for political power, which became the vital element in an interpretation of history directly opposed to that of Marx. Pareto replaced the idea of the progressive development of class systems by a cyclical theory of the rise and fall of elites, and concentrated attention upon the conditions of social equilibrium rather than the causes of social change.

Marxist philosophy

Both Weber and Pareto aspired, though in different ways and with varying success, to establish sociology as an objective social science. Korsch and Lukács, on the other hand, questioned the possibility, and also the value, of such an objective science, and they expounded Marxism as a philosophy of society which approaches every problem from the point of view of the working class.

Korsch, in Marxismus und Philosophie (1923), began by criticizing those thinkers who had regarded Marxism either as a set of methodological rules or as a system of universal causal laws, that is, as a general sociology in the positivist sense. According to him, Marxism includes both empirical and philosophical elements, but the latter are those which distinguish it clearly from other social theories. It is empirical in the sense that it deals with real social movements in modern society and is not in flagrant contradiction with actual events; it is philosophical in the sense that it interprets the facts by means of a conception of history as a process which will terminate in a “classless society.” Because of this vision of the future which it contains, it is above all a theory of social revolution which expresses the outlook, and reflects the practical social activity, of a revolutionary class.

In similar fashion Lukács argued, in several of the essays collected in Geschichte und Klassenbewusstsein (1919–1922), that Marxism is not to be regarded as an objective interpretation of man’s social history—still less as a scientific theory of social evolution—but as an interpretation, from the standpoint of the revolutionary working class, of the historical origins and development of capitalist society. Both writers insisted upon the opposition between Marxism and sociology. For them, Marxism is essentially a theory of history concerned with unique sequences of events and taking account both of objective conditions and of subjective human strivings. Sociology, on the other hand, by its ambition to establish general social laws, in the first place turns man into an object and discounts the subjective aspects of human action and, second, substitutes for the view of society as a historical process the conception of an unvarying system of social relationships which is to be discovered in every form of society.

This idea of Marxism did not find favor with the orthodox Marxist—Leninists, whose opinions were authoritatively expressed at that time through the. Third Communist International. However, there were few scholars among the orthodox who attempted to set out an alternative version or to meet the sociological criticisms of Marxism on their own ground. The most important of them was undoubtedly Nikolai Bukharin, whose exposition of historical materialism (1921) is noteworthy for the serious attention which it gives to the difficulties arising from the claim that Marxism is at the same time an objective social science and the doctrine of a particular social class, and for its discussions of some of the more important criticisms of Marx.

During the early 1900s, the intellectual and political influence of Marxism and the discussions of Marx’s sociological theories were largely confined to the continental European countries. In Britain, Marxism made little impact upon sociology, either then or later. The influence of Marxism was greater in the early development of American sociology, but it was soon overshadowed. Thorstein Veblen is the most notable of those who turned to Marx as a source of powerful and radical ideas, which he then developed in his own fashion in theories of the influence of technology upon social structure (1899) and of the rise to power of the engineers (1921). Albion W. Small, who assigned to Marx a place as the Galileo of the social sciences, also played a large part in introducing Marxist ideas and was himself strongly influenced by Marx in working out his theories of social conflict.

Marxist influence since the 1930s

In the period from the early 1930s to the present day, the lines of thought distinguished above have continued and have been enriched by new studies. A number of Marxist writers have upheld the opposition between Marxism and sociology, and they have found new evidence for their views in Marx’s early manuscripts, which began to be published in 1932. Thus, Korsch expounded his ideas more fully, but in the same form, in a study of Marx (1938) that was contributed to a series on the great sociologists. A few years later Herbert Marcuse (1941), in a study of the relations between Marx and Hegel, represented Marx’s thought as the culminating achievement of the Hegelian dialectical method, as a “critical philosophy” of society which Marcuse contrasted with the positive philosophy and sociology of Comte. The same general view of the nature of Marx’s thought, inspired in this case by Lukács, is to be found in the work of Lucien Goldmann on the methods of the social sciences (1959) and on the social context and the literary expression of Jansenism in France (1955); and it has recently been expounded at length by Jean-Paul Sartre (1960), who argued that sociology, as an empirical discipline, either stands opposed to, or must be comprehended within, Marxism, which alone makes possible an understanding of the historically changing totality of social life.

Mainstream of sociology

In the mainstream of sociological thought, many writers continued to turn to Marx’s work as a source of specific ideas and problems which they could develop along new lines. One of the most important ideas which was thus reassessed was that of ideology. It had already attracted the attention of Marxist writers at the end of the nineteenth century, and Franz Mehring’s Die Lessing-Legende (1893) is the first major attempt to make use of Marx’s theories in the interpretation of literary styles. But it was not until a quarter of a century later that Marxist literary criticism revealed its full scope in the work of Lukács, beginning with the publication of Die Theorie des Romans (1920) and continuing with his studies of nineteenth-century European realism (1935–1939) and of the historical novel (1947).

Another Marxist writer who was greatly preoccupied with problems of ideology in a broader sense is Antonio Gramsci, much of whose work was done during his imprisonment by the Italian fascist government and has become generally known and influential only since the 1950s. Gramsci was especially concerned with the nature of the cultural dominance exercised by a ruling class, to which he attributed much greater importance than other Marxists had done, and, on the other hand, with the means by which the working class in a capitalist society might resist bourgeois cultural influences while developing its own forms of expression in literature, art, and thought. The notion of “social hegemony” which he introduced was meant to emphasize the interdependence of economic, political, and cultural elements in class conflicts; and his studies of the role of intellectuals, of the educational system, and of other aspects of culture (Gramsci 1949), inspired by this idea, were highly original contributions to the discussion of the old Marxist problem of the relations between “base” and “superstructure” in social life.

The notion of ideology also provided the central theme in the work of Karl Mannheim, who envisioned his task as the elaboration of a general sociology of knowledge from Marx’s one-sided criticism of bourgeois ideologies, as a means of under-standing the ideological and political conflicts of the twentieth century. Mannheim’s writings were symptomatic of a deep concern with the problems of ideology which has lasted until the present time and has produced a number of notable works, from the brilliant critical study by Ernst Grünwald (1934) to the historical survey, dealing at length with Marx and Nietzsche, by Hans Earth (1945).

Theories of class structure. Mannheim was exceptional in attributing such overwhelming importance to the problems of ideology, and it is through other concepts—particularly those of class and conflict—that Marx has had his chief influence upon modern sociology. All the major theories of class structure, from those of Max Weber, Joseph Schumpeter, and Theodor Geiger up to those of the present day, have begun from Marx’s formulation of the question and have been more or less strongly influenced in their conclusions by Marx’s own results. Among recent writers, few have been prepared to abandon entirely Marx’s model of the class system; but most of them have introduced modifications and have questioned Marx’s explanations and predictions. Raymond Aron (1950; 1964), C. Wright Mills, and Ralf Dahrendorf (1959) reject, as inconsistent with the evidence, the constant association between economic ownership and political power which is a basic postulate of Marx’s theory, and they draw attention in particular to the alternative bases of political power in societies where private ownership of industrial wealth is nonexistent. Marshall (1934–1962), Lockwood (1958), Lockwood and Goldthorpe (1963), and Mills (1951) examine the changing composition of the main social classes during the past century, especially the changes in the position of the middle classes, and show how these changes affect the relations between classes in a manner of which Marx’s theory takes no account.

Class conflict. Most recent sociologists have criticized Marx’s theory of class conflict, especially that part of it which asserts the inevitability of working-class revolutions in capitalist societies and the eventual cessation of conflict in a society without classes. The critics, such as Dahrendorf (1959) and Aron (1964), argue that the growing differentiation of functions and the increasing separation between the economic, political, and other spheres in the advanced industrial societies have removed the basis for the coalescence of industrial, political, and ideological conflicts in massive class struggles, and that revolutionary movements have in fact disappeared from these societies. At the same time, they assert that some forms of conflict are unavoidable in any large and complex society and that a society without intergroup conflict, such as Marx envisaged, is sociologically impossible. The work of these writers shows, however, the extent to which the Marxist theory of conflict has influenced recent sociology; it has restored to the center of attention the problems of conflicting interests and values and of the strains produced by social change, which had been neglected in those theories, previously in the ascendant, that were chiefly concerned with consensus, integration, and social order.

Communist countries

It might have been anticipated that with the spread of Marxism as a political creed in eastern Europe and Asia after 1945, there would be some revival of Marxist sociology in the countries concerned. However, so far this has not taken place. The later years of Stalin’s rule were not propitious for any kind of sociology, and Soviet Marxism became increasingly occupied with adapting conventional formulas to political circumstances rather than with developing philosophical or sociological arguments; it was even less concerned with encouraging empirical investigations into Soviet society.

Since Stalin’s death there has been a resurgence of sociological research in communist countries, but it is not in any obvious respect inspired by Marxist ideas. Much of the research is concerned with problems which are to be found in all industrialized, or rapidly industrializing, societies—technological change, productivity, urban growth, delinquency, education, and leisure—and it is carried out by the same methods that are used elsewhere. Only in a few instances, where there is some significant difference in the institutional setting of the problems, as in studies of the workers’ councils in Yugoslavia, does the Marxist theoretical system appear to have any importance in shaping the investigations.

In the sphere of theoretical sociology, the contributions from communist countries have been few, and they have often revealed the difficulty of maintaining the Marxist system intact. A good example may be found in one of the most distinguished of these contributions: the last work published by the Polish sociologist Stanislaw Ossowski (1957), in which a profound reappraisal of Marx’s theory of class leads to conclusions which do not differ widely from those reached by sociologists elsewhere. Ossowski recognizes that substantial changes have occurred in the class structure of capitalist countries, and he observes, in particular, that in all the modern industrial societies the political authorities increasingly determine the system of social stratification, rather than being determined by it, as a rigorous Marxist view would maintain. He also considers and criticizes the arguments which have been put forward, on opposite sides, for regarding both the United States and the Soviet Union as “classless societies.” Perhaps his most important contribution, however, is to distinguish the various conceptions of class which were incorporated into Marx’s theory, to establish the tentative character of Marx’s synthesis, and to show its potentialities for further development so long as it is not accepted as dogma. Ossowski’s book may be seen, to some extent, as the harbinger of a more creative period of Marxist thought in communist countries.

Defining Marxist sociology

The record of the encounter between Marxism and sociology since the 1880s shows plainly that while they are distinct, and even opposed, they have never ceased to have a powerful influence upon each other. Marxism is more than a system of sociology; it is a philosophy of man and society, as well as a political doctrine. Sociology, as it has mainly developed in the present century, is an attempt to describe impartially, to measure exactly, and to connect by means of scientific generalizations the diverse phenomena of social life. Even if it be held that a “philosophical anthropology” underlies every major system of theoretical sociology, as Karl Löwith does in his illuminating comparison of Weber and Marx (1932), Marxism still retains a distinctive character; no other body of social thought has become, in this way, the unique doctrine of a political movement and finally the orthodoxy of a ruling party. No other theory, therefore, has been so liable to end in dogmatic assertion and estrangement from social science.

Betwixt Marxism and sociology, the place of Marxist sociology is variable and uncertain. In one sense, Marxist sociology could be regarded as the sociology of those thinkers (for example, Nikolai Bukharin and Max Adler) who, on other grounds, are Marxist in their general philosophical or political outlook. It would then be of the same kind as any other school of sociology—let us say Thomist or Hindu sociology—which is based directly upon a philosophical world view. But it would still be affected by, and would have to respond to, the findings of empirical social research; and at some stage Marxists would be led to consider, as has happened in recent years, whether in fact there can be a separate Marxist sociology any more than there can be a separate Marxist physics.

In a broader sense, however, Marxist sociology might be regarded as including the work of all those thinkers who attach prime importance, in the investigation and explanation of social events, to the role of economic interests, relations between classes, and intergroup conflicts, without necessarily agreeing with the particular conclusions that Marx himself reached. But this category may seem too broad, since it would include those, from Weber and Pareto up to the recent sociologists discussed above, who have acknowledged Marx’s outstanding importance as a thinker and have turned to his work for concepts and hypotheses, but who have revised or rejected so much of his system that it would be eccentric to refer to them as Marxists. Lastly, Marxist sociology may be treated as a methodology, as a persistent critique of the aims and methods of the social sciences. In this form it has undoubtedly been prominent and important, as the writings of Lukács, Marcuse, and Sartre bear witness; but here it becomes not so much Marxist sociology as Marxist “anti-sociology.”

T. B. Bottomore

[See alsoAlienation; Knowledge, SOCIOLOGY OF; Leisure; Marxism; Stratification, SOCIAL, articles on SOCIAL CLASS and THE STRUCTURE OF STRATIFICATION SYSTEMS; and the biographies ofCroce; Lenin; LukÁcs; Luxemburg; Mannheim; Marx; Mills; Ossowski; Pareto; Sombart; TÖnnies; Trotsky; Weber, Max.]


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"Marxist Sociology." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . 19 Jan. 2017 <>.

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Conflicting interpretations

Marxism as the ideology of a ruling party

Ideological strains

Marxism in the noncommunist world


This article deals with the origins and development of the political doctrine of Karl Marx. Marxism is also discussed in Economic thought, article On Socialist Thought; Marxist sociology; Socialism;and in the biography of Marx. Contemporary political and economic aspects are discussed in Communism; Communism, Economic organization of. Also related are Planning, Economic,article on Eastern europe; Workers. The biographies of Bernstein; Engels; Fanon; Kautsky; Lange; Lenin; Lukacs; Luxemburg; Man; Mills; Ossowski;and Trotskydescribe different intellectual developments after Marx. For the biographies of other socialist thinkers, see under Socialism.

Like other schools of socialism that arose in the early nineteenth century, Marxism was a response to the economic and social hardships accompanying the growth of Western industrial capitalism. If in recent decades it has attracted most of its adherents in countries hardly touched by industrial capitalism, this is the result of a tortuous ideologicalhistory.

The intellectual heritage from which Marxism drew its insights, attitudes, and concepts is a syn-thesis of many ideological currents of the early and middle nineteenth century. They include the basic assumptions of the democratic faith and the slogans of the French Revolution; indeed, Marxism asserts that this revolution was betrayed by the very class which made it and will only be fulfilled by the proletariat through socialism. Hence, Marxism also embraces the syndrome of attitudes associated with workers’ protest movements and socialism. Further, Marxism embodies the empiricism or “materialism” of Bacon, Hobbes, and Helvetius. From Rousseau and the romantics it has taken a strongly ambivalent attitude toward past and present institutions, together with a strong commitment to historicism and its Hegelian form—dialectics. Finally, this mixture is seasoned with the anthropocentrism of Feuerbach, the economic doctrines of Smith and Ricardo, and the class-war theories of Michelet and other historians of the French Revolution.

As a syndrome of attitudes, Marxism might be described as a synthesis of radicalism, optimism, and a commitment to science: it is radical in criticizing contemporary social institutions and practices as stupid and inhuman; it is optimistic in expecting, eventually, the creation of a “good society” worthy of man’s highest potentials; it is committed to science not only because it wishes to analyze society but also because it is convinced that the scientific investigation of the social forces active in the contemporary world will confirm both its radicalism and its optimism.


Marxism is a dialectical theory of human progress. It regards history as the development of man’s effort to master the forces of nature and, hence, of

production (“economic interpretation of history”). Since all production is carried out within social organization, history is the succession of changes in socialsystems, the development of human relations geared to productive activity (“modes of production”), in which the economic system forms the “base” and all other relationships, institutions, activities, and idea systems are “superstructural.”

History is progress because man’s ability to produce, his “forces of production,” continually increase. It is regression because in perfecting the forcesof production man creates a more and more complex and oppressive social organization, seemingly beyond human control (the “production relations”), the central feature of which is the division of society into classes. Classes are defined by their relations to the essential means of production: the ruling class is that group of men who own the means of production; those who are propertyless are forced to function as the laboring class. Like Rousseau, Marx was profoundly interested in exploring the inequalities of men because he shared his belief that there can be no democracy as long as there are inequality and special interests.

Progress, thus, is a mixed blessing. Nor is it unilinear, for in the history of man different elements of the complicated social system continually become dysfunctional to each other. In particular, the production relations, originally in tune with a given state of the forces of production, lag behind the latter and come to retard their further development. From a promoter of progress the ruling class turns into a useless parasite. But when the old production relations have turned into a dead shell, mankind assures the march of progress by remaking the social system in revolutionary violence, giving leadership to the class wielding the most advanced means of production. According to the Marxist scheme of history, mankind has gone through three or four major modes of production since an initial golden age of primitive communism: ancient slave society, feudalism, and capitalism (to which Marx added, in some of his works, Asiatic society as a distinct mode of production).

Capitalism, the last form of society torn by a class struggle, represents the peak of human development so far. On the one hand, it has created and amassed unprecedented wealth, which, if used rationally, could assure the material well-being of all mankind. Yet, by virtue of its own laws of operation, capitalism cannot utilize its means of production rationally but must match the accumulation of capital with the accumulation of misery and chaos. Again, while it has promoted constitutional government and the rights of man, the formal rights and equalities of liberal regimes are vitiated by actual inequalities and ultimate dehumanization: formally free, man has been converted into a commodity, whose labor power, talents, and personality are for sale on the free market. The resolution of these contradictions will be produced by capitalism itself. Its own economic laws not only produce chaos and crisis but also narrow the social basis of capitalism by casting the mass of the population into the proletariat. At a crisis point the exploited will rise in revolution, expropriate the ruling class, replace commodity production with an economy based on national planning, and abolish all class divisions in society.

Supporting the optimistic prognosis of revolutionary Marxism is the image of the proletariat as the “chosen people,” who, because of their place in society, their state of organization, and their spontaneous grasp of reality (“class consciousness”) can be expected to rise above all narrow interests, loyalties, and ideologies and liberate mankind for-ever from the curse of property and class.


Marxist doctrine was spelled out concisely in the Communist Manifesto. This pamphlet was written shortly before the outbreak of the 1848 revolution, which Marx and Engels were confident would lead to the socialist revolution of the proletariat. The failure of 1848 forced them to explain what had prevented this act of deliverance. In subsequent political commentaries, they emphasized complicating factors left out of the more abstract analysis of capitalism: the role of precapitalist classes in European politics, especially the petty bourgeoisie; the baneful role of demoralized workers (Lumpenproletariat)• the role of the state as an independent political force; and the role of nations. Many ideas contained in these political writings were never fully integrated with general Marxist theory. Indeed, Marx’s major work on the capitalist system remained a fragment; and he died before he had time to give a systematic presentation of such a central concept as social class.

Another task made necessary by the failure of 1848 was to elaborate a political strategy for the proletarian movement. Here Marxism came to emphasize the differences between long-range and short-range objectives. Socialism was defined as the maximal goal, while the minimal goal was the liberation of capitalism from feudal and absolutist residues of a political, economic, or social nature. A more intermediate goal—the dictatorship of the proletariat—received scant mention in Marx’s writings.

Problems of political strategy became more important because, after inauspicious beginnings, Marxist doctrine was in time accepted as the party ideology of the European labor movement. There is irony in this merger because the workers’ movement which finally accepted Marxist ideology was in many ways different from the proletariat as Marx and Engels had described and idealized it in 1847-1848. It tended toward reformism, had faith in constitutional democracy, and, as the first mass party of modern history, became thoroughly bureaucratized. Ulam (1960) cogently argues that Marxism at that time was no longer a suitable ideology for the European labor movement. Hence, its adoption raises puzzling questions which cannot be pursued here.

Suitable or not, the merger of the ideology with the movement was a turning point because, with it, Marxism became a formal ideology, a guide to thought and action, a holy writ and catechism. Henceforth, it tended toward doctrinal rigidity. The growing discrepancy between revolutionary theories and actual party policies lent Marxism a note of hypocrisy, while a widening gap between assumptions and reality had the effect of ideological blinders on those who wanted to use Marxism as a tool for comprehension. Moreover, once Marxism was accepted as party doctrine, its adherents, beginning with Engels, extended the doctrine into areas of inquiry to which Marx himself had not applied it. Marx had thought to encompass with his theory contemporary society and all of human history. Engels sought to integrate Darwinian theory and all natural science with Marxism and to raise Marxist theories to the level of a universal philosophy. For Marx the ultimate determinant of the course of history was man and his needs, but for Engels it came to be matter and its motion. Yet, it was the ideas of Engels which set the tone for orthodox Marxism of both the social democratic and communist persuasions. The sociopsychological dynamics behind both this extension of the doctrine and its transformation into a holy writ still need to be explored.

Conflicting interpretations

As soon as Marxism was accepted as the doctrine of the European labor movement, it became a matter of controversy among its followers, partly because the work of Marx and Engels had remained unfinished in many details, but even more because of social changes that had occurred. The ensuing debates dealt with issues of strategy, focusing on the problem of maturity, i.e., the task of defining the point at which a society might be ripe for the proletarian revolution. Engels alluded to the problem by wondering about the paradox that the proletarian revolution might be impossible as long as it was necessary and unnecessary once it became feasible. Problems of organization and tactics also provided material for controversies. Discussions of these and many related issues are still going on within Marxism, even though the same questions are asked in changing circumstances.

Of the controversies raging before World War I, the bitterest was unrelated to strategy or organization. It arose instead out of the growing unrealism of Marxist doctrine. The spread of economic prosperity and constitutional government belied Marxist prognoses about the intensification of crises and misery; and the revolutionary slogans of the Communist Manifesto sounded incongruous when uttered by the moderate leaders of the Second International.

To resolve the discrepancy, the “revisionists” proposed a thoroughgoing change of Marxist doctrines so as to make them reflect current conditions, modern scientific insights, and social democratic aims and policies. Revisionism came close to being a repudiation of Marxist ideas; and it can be regarded as the first in a long series of steps away from Marx made by democratic socialists since the turn of the century. Their antagonists in the Second International insistently upheld the letter of Marxist doctrines, identifying loyalty to the writ of Marx with loyalty to the workers’ movement. The method of bridging the gap between theory and reality was by denying its existence, meanwhile reinterpreting Marx’s revolutionary theories so as to make them yield reformist counsel. For most Marxists committed to democratic socialism, this was an ideological rear-guard action, because the predominant trend in the socialist movement has been to follow the revisionists in their repudiation of Marx.

While the revisionists sought to change theories in order to align them with reality and the orthodox denied the need for such realignment, a radical wing of the Marxist movement, which arose after the turn of the century, attempted to bridge the gap between theory and practice by leading the workers’ movement back to the revolutionary orientation of the Communist Manifesto. This wing be-came the nucleus of communism; most of its leaders joined communist parties, if only for short periods.

The radical Marxists asserted that despite pro-found changes in the capitalist world since the days of Marx—especially “imperialism” (the export of

capital and of capitalism to dependent countries overseas)—the basic contradictions of capitalism had remained; hence also the inevitability and necessity of the revolution Marx had predicted. Disagreements among the radicals arose over many issues, the most divisive one being the question of organization. One faction, of which Rosa Luxemburg was the outstanding spokesman, saw the roots of “reformism,” i.e., democratic socialism, in the bureaucratization of the workers’ movement, which they thought stifled revolutionary initiative and proletarian class consciousness. Against them, Lenin and his Bolsheviks believed that revolution making should be subject to rational management (bureaucracy), and they held, moreover, that by itself, spontaneously, the proletariat would not be able to attain class consciousness; hence their emphasis on leadership by an enlightened elite organized in bureaucratic fashion in the party, which should function as the general staff of the proletarian revolution. Leninist Marxism thus focuses on the task of manipulating the masses through leaders who have acquired insight into the politically necessary and possible by applying Marxist categories to the analysis of their society.

New ideological problems were bound to arise when a Marxist party was founded in Russia toward the end of the nineteenth century, because most of the conditions to which Marxism originally had been a response were absent in that country. The very fact that Marxism could find acceptance among Russian revolutionaries is an interesting ideological development, which deserves explanation in another context. Russia’s economic backwardness and repressive political system exacerbated problems of timing, leadership, organization, political alliances, and related issues, considerably straining the entire framework of Marxist concepts. For instance, the notion that the bourgeoisie cannot fulfill the ideological promises of the bourgeois revolution was a central tenet of Marx and Engels. But Lenin’s idea that the bourgeoisie will not carry out or even initiate “itsown” revolution (which will instead have to be accomplished by the proletariat and its allies) requires very bold use of Marxist class terminology. In its mature form Bolshevism takes even greater liberties with the original Marxist conception when it assigns to colonial and other dependent nations a significant role in the hoped-for “proletarian” revolutions. Underdeveloped nations here assume some of the traits which Marx had attributed to the industrial workers of the West. But as a consequence, the “proletarian revolution” itself turns into something very different from what Marx had assumed it to be. Originally thought of as the act of taking over the mature industrial establishment created (and mismanaged) by capitalism, it now can take over nothing but a backward economy and culture; this leads to the paradoxical conclusion that the proletarian state (a “superstructural” phenomenon) will have to begin constructing its own economic “base,” making use of “capitalist” methods in doing so.

In their controversies over policy and organization, the different factions of Russian Marxism emphasized those portions of the ideology which seemed to support their views, at the expense of other portions. Lenin and his Bolsheviks were so intent on reaching their goal, the proletarian revolution, that they amended Marx’s revolutionary timetable beyond recognition; this led to the accusation that they were Blanquists rather than Marxists. The more cautious Mensheviks, in turn, seemed so concerned with following the timetable provided by Marx that Lenin accused them of postponing socialism and the revolution ad calendas Graecas and thus betraying the cause of the proletariat.

The schism which split Russian Marxism into two hostile social-democratic parties was extended to the entire world-wide movement in the years from 1914 to 1920. Disagreements over the proper attitudes a Marxist should take toward the war and the Russian Revolution divided Marxism irreconcilably into socialists and communists, each creating their own international federation of parties. The most important issue between them was their difference of attitude toward the Bolshevik seizure of power and method of governing. The communists regarded their state as the pioneer of the international workers’ movement. The socialists saw in it an ill-timed and irresponsible adventure which discredited the Marxist movement. In subsequent decades, the communist-socialist split hastened the process by which democratic socialism came to dissociate itself from Marxist ideology. [SeeSocialism.]

Marxism as the ideology of a ruling party

Once in power, the Russian communists sought to use Marxism as a guidebook for the further road toward socialism and for managing a proletarian dictatorship. The difficulties they encountered and the sketchiness of the hints Marx and Engels had provided for solving these problems led to new and sharp controversies among the communists themselves, in which the broadest spectrum of Marxist concepts was once again discussed from divergent points of view. With Stalin’s rise to power

the debate was forcibly closed, and his own views were imposed as dogma over all communist parties. The substance of this dogma, based on Leninist principles, might be summarized as follows: Marxism is both scientific truth and ideology—the ideology of the working class. The Communist party alone possesses full scientific insight and ex-pressesthe true interests of the workers. Hence, only he who is loyal to the party can be loyalto the proletariat, in tune with the course of history, or capable of grasping the truth. Nothing can be true which contradicts the party. Further, official Soviet doctrine justifies the communist state, its policies and social structure, as a proletarian dictatorshipand a true democracy engaged in “constructing socialism.” Marxism here has turned into a theory of state defending, as virtually perfect, a regime violating all the libertarian and egalitarian values expressed by Marx. The success with which Marxist concepts have been used to fashion a conservative and authoritarian doctrine of this kind is a major achievement in ideology making. In the Soviet Union this has recently been supplemented by a program for the “transition to communism,” which is an obvious attempt to tone down expectations. Calling for little significant change in present-day Soviet society, it signals the withering away of utopia on this branch of Marxist ideology. Finally, contemporary communist ideology incorporates a program for the further spread of the “proletarian” revolution. But although the workers in the industrialized countries have not been written off formally, in effect the communist movement has now substituted the colonial and other dependent nations in the historic role which Marx attributed to the proletariat of the capitalist world.

The function of the ideology in communist political systems has been the subject of much controversy. Many scholars (echoing communist dogma) see Marxism-Leninism as the master plan guiding all communist thought, actions, and institutions. Others assert that it is no more than rationalization which easily adapts to any changes in policy. However contradictory, both theories have some plausibility but are easily refuted in their exaggerated forms.

Marxist ideology, as amended by Lenin and his successors, did inspire the men who made communist revolutions and has influenced communist regimes and institutions even more directly than the ideas of Rousseau and Locke have shaped the institutions of the French and American republics. Although the ideology becomes primarily rationalization after the communist seizure of power, it does remain the language of politics, meaning not only a code of communications for the political elite but also the conceptual frame of reference used for cognitive and ethical self-orientation. It thus determines both analysis and action, if only negatively, that is, as ideological blinders and as a brake (“bad conscience”) on freedom of action. [SeeIdeology.]

A doctrine which is meant to serve as a useful aid to cognition must be realistic and flexible, whereas a doctrine functioning as a communications code need only be rigid. These and other conflicting functions of the ideology strain it. Primarily, perhaps, the ideology functions as a legitimation device, implying not only an exercise in public relations to attain legitimacy among the citizens but, even more important, a continual attempt by the party leaders to convince themselves of their own legitimacy; more generally, it functions as an ideological exoskeleton for insecure bureaucrats in a vast and powerful administrative machine. The implication is that communist leaders in making doctrinal pronouncements speak more to themselves than to their citizenry, and least of all to the outside world. This phenomenon of self-encouragement or self-legitimation, observable in all societies, has been unduly neglected by contemporary communications theory.

Ideological strains

Since World War II, communist parties have come to power in close to a dozen countriesof eastern Europe, Asia, and the Caribbean area. These various Marxist—Leninist regimes came to power by widely divergent methods and, once in-stalled, faced very different tasks because of the great differences in the cultures, economic development, political traditions, and social structures of the countries concerned. If to these variations in national interests and outlooks of the several communist regimes one adds the bitter memory of past disagreements and injuries, plus the normal political rivalries between groups and personalities within a large group of states, it is not astonishing that sharp conflicts arose in the communist camp, straining relations between the different regimes and within each communist party. Given the relations between politics and ideology within the communist movement, these disagreements sooner or later had to become doctrinal and thus turned into questions of fundamental principle. Hence, the dialogue between Tito and Stalin, between Khrushchev and Mao, and between revisionists and dogmatists in every communistparty led to a discus- sion of not only basic problems in revolutionary strategy and socialist construction but also of the most fundamental concepts of Marxism-Leninism.

The resulting differences within the communist world are today as deep as the schism between Mensheviks and Bolsheviks half a century ago. Moreover, the issues under discussion are similar to those which divided Russian Marxism at that time, even though the circumstances and the con-crete reference points have changed. The unity of the communist movement is as irretrievably gone as was the unity of European Marxism at the time of the October Revolution. As a result, what 15 years ago seemed well-established dogma is now subject to doubt. Within some of the communist societies, party dogmas today are also being criticized in the name of science, while the practices of communist governments and the rhetoric which justifies them are challenged in the name of Marxist humanism. In short, official ideology is assailed from several directions. Two tendencies are likely to result from this multiple onslaught. Official ideological output may turn increasingly into empty, meaningless political oratory, ritually incanted on suitable ceremonial occasions but as removed from life as Sunday sermons and Independence Day speeches. At the same time, a genuine dialogue conducted between and within the several communist parties over a sufficient period of time might serve to reinvigorate Marxist ideology, especially in communist parties that have not yet come to power, even though it may also lead many former adherents to repudiate this ideology. [See the articles underCommunism.]

Marxism in the noncommunist world

Although the communist movement (or movements, as one must now write) claims to be the legitimate heir of Marxist ideology, Marxism continues to exist, in the Western world, as a non-communist ideology. To be sure, most socialist parties have gone far in severing their ties with Marxism. Yet interest in it has increased in certain intellectual circles. Most of this is roundly critical and, especially in its recent intensified form, is a function of the cold war. The variety of points of view from which Marxism, or what is understood to be Marxism, has been criticized cannot be summarized here. But some of the recent interest has been sympathetic. This may have been stimulated by the collaboration of many diverse elements with communists and socialists during and shortly after World War II. In addition, political, economic, racial, and other difficulties that have beset the Western world since the war have increased many intellectuals’ awareness of defects in their social system. For anyone focusing his attention on negative aspects of contemporary social life, Marxism offers considerable attraction, principally because of two elements: one is the message of inevitable doom derived from the analysis of the capitalist economy; the other is the humanist ethic of Marxism—the emphasis on the evil features of a commercial civilization, the romantic anger at institutions and practices that degrade, oppress, or exploit some men, and the sanguine belief in the inherent goodness of mankind, which under favorable circumstances can and will free itself from inhibiting and corrupting institutions. In the last decade or two interest in this humanist philosophy of Marx and in the early writings in which it is expressed has increased rapidly. Finally, there is some increase in the interest social scientists have in Marx as a precursor of contemporary social science : some of his methodological contributions are only now receiving recognition.

Alfred G. Meyer


See the bibliographies following the articles onEngels; Lenin; andMarxfor their major works.

Bloom, Solomon F. 1941 The World of Nations: A Study of the National Implications in the Work of Karl Marx. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

Chambre, Henri (1959) 1963 From Karl Marx to Mao Tse-tung: A Systematic Survey of Marxism-Leninism. New York: Kennedy. > First published in French.

Cole, G. D. H. 1953-1960 A History of Socialist Thought. 5 vols. New York: St. Martins; London: Macmillan. → Volume 1:Socialist Thought: The Forerunners 1789—1850, 1953. Volume 2:Marxism and Anarchism 1850-1890, 1954. Volume 3: Second International 1889-1914, 2 parts, 1956. Volume 4: Communism and Social Democracy 1914-1931, 2 parts, 1958. Volume 5:Socialism and Fascism 1931-1939, 1960.

Daniels, Robert V. 1960 The Conscience of the Revolution: Communist Opposition in Soviet Russia. Rus-sian Research Center Studies, No. 40. Cambridge Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Fetscher, Iring (1956) 1959 Von Marx zur Sowjetideologie. 4th ed. Frankfurt am Main: Diesterweg.

Fundamentals of Marxism-Leninism. 2d ed., rev. (1959) 1963 Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House. -> First published as Osnovy marksizma-leninizma.

GAY, PETER 1952 The Dilemma of Democratic Socialism: Eduard Bernstein’s Challenge to Marx. New York: Columbia Univ. Press. --> A paperback edition was published in 1962 by Collier.

Gregor, A. James 1965 A Survey of Marxism: Problems in the Philosophy and Theory of History. New York: Random House.

Haimson, Leopold H. 1955 The Russian Marxist ’• the Origins of Bolshevism. Russian Research Center

Studies, No. 19. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Kolarz, Walter (1959) 1964 Books on Communism: A Bibliography. 2d ed. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Labedz, Leopold (editor) 1962 Revisionism: Essays on the History of Marxist Ideas. New York: Praeger.

Lehmbruch, Gerhard (1956) 1958 Kleiner Wegweiser zum Studium der Sowjetideologie. Bonn: Gesamtdeutscher Verlag. -→ A revised and enlarged edition of H. Gollwitzer and G. Lehmbruch’s Kleiner Wegweiser zum Studium des Marxismus-Leninismus.

Lichtheim, George (1961) 1964 Marxism: An Historical and Critical Study. 2d ed., rev. London: Rout-ledge. -→ A paperback edition was published by Praeger in 1965. Marcuse, Herbert (1941) 1955 Reason and Revolution: Hegel and the Rise of Social Theory. 2d. ed. New York: Humanities; London: Routledge. -→ A paperback -edition was published in 1960 by Beacon

Marcuse, Herbert 1958 Soviet Marxism: A Critical Analysis. New York: Columbia Univ. Press. -→ A paperback edition was published in 1961 by Vintage.

Meyer, Alfred G. 1957 Leninism. Russian Research Center Studies, No. 26. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press. -> A paperback edition was published in 1962 by Praeger.

Mitrany, David 1951 Marx Against the Peasant: A Study in Social Dogmatism. Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press.

Plamenatz, JOHN P. (1954) 1961 German Marxism and Russian Communism. New York: Longmans.

Ramm, Thilo 1955 Die grossen Sozialisten als Rechtsund Sozialphilosophen. Stuttgart: Fischer.

Rosenberg, Arthur (1932) 1939 A History of Bolshevism: From Marx to the First Five Years’ Plan. London and New York: Oxford Univ. Press. -→ First published in German.

Rubel, Maximilien 1956 Bibliographic des oeuvres de Karl Marx: Avec en appendice un repertoire des oeuvres de Friedrich Engels. Paris: Riviere. -> A 74-page supplement was added in 1960.

Schorske, CARL E. 1955 German Social Democracy, 1905-1917: The Development of the Great Schism. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Schwartz, Benjamin I. 1951 Chinese Communism and the Rise of Mao. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Timasheff, Nicholas S. 1946 The Great Retreat: The Growth and Decline of Communism in Russia. New York: Dutton.

Tucker, ROBERT C. 1961 Philosophy and Myth in Karl Marx. Cambridge Univ. Press.

Ulam, Adam B. 1960 The Unfinished Revolution: An Essay on the Sources of Influence of Marxism and Communism. New York: Random House

Wetter, Gustavo A. (1948) 1959 Dialectical Materialism: A Historical and Systematic Survey of Philosophy in the Soviet Union. New York: Praeger. -→ First published as II materialismo dialettico sovietico.

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"Marxism." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . 19 Jan. 2017 <>.

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Marxism is a family of critiques, theories, and political goals loosely organized around the theories and criticisms formulated by Karl Marx (18181883) in the middle of the nineteenth century. Central to this body of theory are several key ideas: the view that capitalism embodies a system of class exploitation; that socialism is a social order in which private property and exploitation are abolished; and that socialism can be achieved through revolution. Revolutionary leaders and theorists, and several generations of social scientists and historians, have attempted to develop these central ideas into programs of political action and historical research. The challenges for Marxist political parties fall in two general areas: how to achieve revolutionary political change (the problem of revolution); and what the ultimate socialist society ought to look like (the problem of the creation of socialism).

Marx was an advocate for socialism and for the ascendant political power of the working class (Newman 2005). His analysis of the need for political action by the proletariat was most fully expressed in The Communist Manifesto, jointly authored with Friedrich Engels. He was one of the early leaders of the International Workingmens Association (the First International), founded in 1864. However, Marxs economic and political writings provide very little concrete guidance for the design of a socialist society. Socialism was to be an order in which exploitation and domination were abolished; it was to establish an end to the dominion of private property; it was to create an environment of democratic self-determination for the proletariat. Marxs own definition of socialism might have included these elements: collective ownership of the means of production, a centralized socialist party, political power in the hands of the proletariat, and the view that socialist reform will require the power of a socialist state. Marx also emphasized human freedom and true democracyelements that could have been incorporated into nonauthoritarian forms of democratic socialism.

Much of the political platform of twentieth-century Marxism took shape following the death of Marx through a handful of more authoritarian theories, including especially those of Vladimir Lenin (18701924), Joseph Stalin (18781953), and Mao Zedong (18931976). The most catastrophic ideological results of twentieth-century communism bear only a tangential relationship to Marxs writings; instead, they bear the imprint of such revolutionary thinkers as Lenin, Stalin, Leon Trotsky (18791940), and Mao. Perhaps the most crucial flaw within twentieth-century communist thought was its authoritarianism: the idea that a revolutionary state and its vanguard party can take any means necessary in order to bring about communist outcomes. This assumption of unlimited political authority for party and state led to massive violations of human rights within Soviet and Communist regimes: Stalins war on the kulaks (rich farmers), the Moscow show trials, the Gulag, Maos Great Leap Forward and its resulting famine, and the Chinese Cultural Revolution. The dramatic economic failures of centralized Soviet-style economies derived from a similar impulse: the view that the state could and should manage the basic institutions and behaviors of a socialist society (Kornai 1992).

It is possible to formulate a nonauthoritarian conception of socialism based on a democratic socialist movement and a theory of a democratic socialist society. Indeed, it is possible to find support for such conceptions within the writings of Marx himself. The most influential Marxist parties of the twentieth century took another avenue, however. These parties emphasized the dictatorship of the proletariat, the need for the working class to seize power by force, and the conviction that the bourgeoisie and its allies would not tolerate a peaceful transformation of the defining property relations of capitalism. The Bolshevik seizure of political power in the Russian Revolution (1917), the failed Spartacist uprising in Germany in 1918, and the Chinese Communist Revolution in 1949 all embodied the assumption that only a disciplined central party, supported by the masses, would be able to exercise the power necessary to overthrow the capitalist ruling class; and only a disciplined Communist government would be capable of enacting the massive social changes required for the establishment of communist society once in power. The dominant political ideology of communist parties and states in the twentieth century was antidemocratic and ruthless in its use of violence against its own citizens. (One of the few examples of a socialist regime that willingly submitted itself to popular referendum, and accepted defeat, was the government of Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua in 1990.)

Soviet Communism represented the earliest and most pervasive ascendancy by a communist party. After the seizure of power in the Russian Revolution, Lenin and Stalin exercised political power to force the rapid transformation of Soviet society and economy, and to preserve the power and privilege of the Communist Party. There was deep disagreement among the partys leadership about the right course for Soviet Communism. How should the development of agriculture and industry be balanced? How rapidly should socialist transition be performed? How should the forces of the market and the state be involved in socialist transition? One school of thought advocated a gradual transformation of the Soviet economy and system of production, permitting the workings of market institutions and the emergence of an industrial bourgeoisie that would advance Soviet industrial capacity. The other school was ideologically opposed to permitting a propertied class to acquire power, and advocated a state-directed and more rapid transition to socialism. The New Economic Policy (NEP) of 1921 embodied the former strategy, and it was decisively rejected by 1928. From that point forward, Stalin demonstrated his intention of using the power of the state to force social changes that would propel the Soviet system into its communist future. Stalins determination to defeat counter-revolutionary kulaks during the period of collectivization of agriculture brought about the deaths by starvation of several million rural people in the Ukraine, as a deliberate act of policy (Viola 2005). The doctrine of socialism in one country led the Soviet-dominated Communist International to sacrifice other socialist parties (for example, during the Spanish Civil War) in favor of the interests of the Soviet system. Stalins internal political and ideological struggles within the party led him to pursue a murderous campaign against other Communist leaders and ordinary people, resulting in show trials, summary executions, and the consignment of millions of people to remote labor camps. (See Smith 2002 for a good summary of these events.)

Chinas Communist Revolution was guided by Mao Zedong from its early mobilization in the 1920s, through civil war and anti-Japanese war in the 1930s and 1940s, to successful seizure of power in 1949 by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Red Army. Maos Marxism was strongly influenced by Soviet ideology, but also incorporated the perspective of the role of the peasantry in revolution. Classical Marxism placed the proletariat at center stage as the revolutionary class, but Maos urban proletariat strategy was destroyed in 1927 when the Republican army under Chiang Kai-shek (18871975) massacred the Shanghai Communist Party organization. This precipitated the Long March and Maos regrouping around an ultimately successful peasant-based strategy for revolution. Chinas communist leaders too faced fateful policy choices: whether and how to implement social ownership of agriculture and industry, how to achieve rapid industrialization and modernization, how to create the political conditions necessary to sustain Chinese socialism and socialist identity among the Chinese population, and how to confront the capitalist world. Chinas history since 1949 has pivoted around these issues: the Great Leap Forward (1957), in which China underwent rapid collectivization of agriculture, and an ensuing famine that resulted in tens of millions of deaths; the Cultural Revolution (19661976), in which Red Guards throughout the country persecuted and punished teachers, officials, and others for political purity; the reform of agriculture toward the Family Responsibility system in the 1980s, resulting in a surge of productivity in the farm economy; and the rapid economic growth of the 1990s into the first part of the twenty-first century. Developments since 1980 reveal a more pragmatic and market-oriented approach toward Chinas development on the part of CCP leadership. At the same time, the Chinese governments crackdown on the democracy movement in 1990 at Tiananmen Square demonstrated the partys determination to maintain control of Chinas political system.

Anticapitalist politics of the early twentieth century were influenced by several strands of activism and theory that were independent of Marxs thought, and these strands found expression in the solutions and platforms of Marxist political parties and movements. Anarchist thinkers, such as Mikhail Bakunin (18141876) and Peter Kropotkin (18421921), put forward the radical view that all forms of state power were inherently evil. Anarchism and syndicalism had significant influence on radical labor unions in Europe and North America. Revisionist socialists, such as Eduard Bernstein (18501932), argued that revolution by force was not a feasible path to socialism and advocated instead for gradual change from within capitalism. Democratic thinkers emphasized the ability of groups of people to govern themselves, and to press their states to undertake radical reforms of current conditions. The British Labour Party and the main European social democratic parties fall within the tradition of democratic socialism, as opposed to Marxism-Leninism. European socialist parties in the twentieth century affiliated within the loose political organizations of the Second International (18891916), the International Working Union of Socialist Parties, and the Socialist International (Miliband 1982).

The twentieth century witnessed several important new developments within the intellectual architecture of Marxism. Western Marxism attempted to extrapolate Marxs ideas in new ways, extending treatment of issues having to do with humanism, dialectics, history, and democracy. Critical theory was an important intellectual elaboration of some of Marxs philosophical ideas, in the hands of such thinkers as Theodor Adorno (19031969), Max Horkheimer (18951973), Hans-Georg Gadamer (19002002), and Jürgen Habermas (b. 1929) (Geuss 1981; Wellmer 1971). In the 1960s Western Marxism developed a distinctive political standpoint on the issues of the day under the banner of the New Left: economic inequality within capitalist countries, inequalities within a colonialized world, and struggles for independence by countries in the developing world. Partially shaped by a growing awareness of Stalins crimes in the 1940s and 1950s, Western Marxists developed the strand of democratic socialism into a full intellectual and political program. Particularly important were contributions by Perry Anderson (b. 1938), E. P. Thompson (19241993), Ralph Miliband (19241994), and the New Left Review. This body of thought retained the critical perspective of classical Marxism; it gave greater focus to the world historical importance of imperialism and colonialism; and it aligned itself with the interests of developing countries such as Cuba and India.


The other important dimension of Marxism in the contemporary world is in the area of knowledge and theory. Marxs theoretical and scientific writings are primarily expressed in his economic writings in the three volumes of Capital and Theories of Surplus Value, and in his historical writings such as The German Ideology and The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon. Marxs theory of historical materialism maintains that large historical change proceeds as a result of dynamic interaction between the forces and relations of production (roughly, technology and property relations) (Cohen 1978). Marx identifies the economic structure of society (the forces and relations of production) as the key factor that constrains and impels historical transformation across large historical epochs (the slave mode of production, feudalism, capitalism). And he regards other institutions, including institutions of politics and culture, as part of the superstructure of society. These superstructural institutions are social arrangements that serve to support and stabilize the development of the economic structure. Another important element of the framework of historical materialism is the theory of class conflict as an engine of historical change. The central conflict in every society, according to Marx, is the economic conflict between owners of property and the propertyless: masters and slaves, lords and serfs, and capitalists and proletarians. Marx also offers a theory of ideology and mystification: the view that the ideas and beliefs that people have in a class society are themselves a material product of specific social institutions, and are distorted in ways that serve the interests of the dominant classes.

Materialism implies that the economic structure of society is fundamental to its historical dynamics. How does this theory work in relation to modern society? Marx advanced a multistranded analysis of the capitalist mode of production in his most extensive work, Capital. This account was intended to be rigorous and scientific (Little 1986; Rosdolsky 1977). Marx hoped to succeed in penetrating beneath the surface appearances of the English economy of the nineteenth century, to discover some laws of motion and institutional mechanisms that would explain its historical behavior. There are several independent strands of this analysis: a social-institutional account of the specific property relations (capital and wage labor) that defined the material and institutional context of capitalist development; a sociological description of some of the characteristics of the industrial workplace and the industrial city; a historical account of the transformations of traditional rural society that had created the foundation for the emergence of this dynamic system; and a mathematical analysis of the sources and transformation of value and surplus value within this economy. The mathematical theory based on the labor theory of value has not stood the test of time well, whereas the more sociological and institutional core of the framework continues to shed light on how a modern private-property economy functions.

There is no single answer to the question, What is the Marxist approach to social science? Instead, Marxist social inquiry in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries represents a chorus of many voices and insights, many of which are inconsistent with others. Rather than representing a coherent research community defined by a central paradigm and commitment to specific methodological and theoretical premises, Marxist social science in the twentieth century had a great deal of variety and diversity of perspectives. There is a wide range of thinkers whose work falls within the general category of Marxian social science and history: E. P. Thompson, Louis Althusser, Jürgen Habermas, Gerald Cohen, Robert Brenner, Nicos Poulantzas, Perry Anderson, Ralph Miliband, Nikolai Bukharin, Georg Lukàcs, Antonio Gramsci, and Michel Foucault. All these authors have made a contribution to Marxist social science, but in no way do these contributions add up to a single, coherent and focused methodology for the social sciences. Instead, there are numerous instances of substantive and methodological writings, from a variety of traditions, that have provided moments of insight and locations for possible future research.


Where do Marxs ideas stand in the early part of the twenty-first century? Several areas of limitation in Marxs social theories have come under scrutiny by theorists and social critics late in the twentieth century. (1) Feminist and cultural critics have argued that Marxs thought is too economistic and exclusively focused on issues of classthereby ignoring other forms of oppression and domination that exist in modern society, including those based on gender, race, or ethnicity. (2) Green socialists have criticized Marxs theory of capitalist development and socialism on the ground that it is deeply pro-growth, in ways that are sometimes said to be at odds with environmental sustainability. (3) Democratic socialists have criticized Marxs rhetoric of class politics on the ground that it gives too little validity to the demands of democracy; they have advocated for a much deeper embodiment of the importance of collective self-determination within socialist theory and practice. (4) Marxs critique of capitalist society emphasizes economic features to the neglect of cultural or ideological forms of domination. Theorists who consider the social role of communications media argue (reminiscent of Gramscis writings) that the softer forms of oppression and domination that are associated with television, the Internet, and the instruments of public opinion are at least as profound in the contemporary world as the more visible forms of political and economic domination that Marx emphasized. Here the writings of Stuart Hall (Hall 1980, 1997) and Raymond Williams (Williams 1974, 1977) have been particularly influential.

Notwithstanding these areas of limitation in Marxs vision, the most central critical theory within Marxism is the demand for human emancipation from forms of exploitation, domination, and alienation that interfere with full, free human development. And these ideas give ample scope for twenty-first century debates and progress.

SEE ALSO Materialism, Dialectical


Cohen, Gerald A. 1978. Karl Marxs Theory of History: A Defence. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Geuss, Raymond. 1981. The Idea of a Critical Theory: Habermas and the Frankfurt School. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Hall, Stuart. 1980. Culture, Media, Language: Working Papers in Cultural Studies, 197279. London: Hutchinson.

Hall, Stuart. 1997. Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. London and Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage in association with the Open University.

Kornai, Janos. 1992. The Socialist System: The Political Economy of Communism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Little, Daniel. 1986. The Scientific Marx. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Miliband, Ralph. 1982. Capitalist Democracy in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Newman, Michael. 2005. Socialism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Rosdolsky, Roman. 1977. The Making of Marxs Capital. London: Pluto Press.

Smith, S. A. 2002. The Russian Revolution: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Viola, Lynne. 2005. The War Against the Peasantry, 19271930: The Tragedy of the Soviet Countryside. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Wellmer, Albrecht. 1971. Critical Theory of Society. New York: Herder and Herder.

Williams, Raymond. 1974. Television: Technology and Cultural Form. London: Fontana.

Williams, Raymond. 1977. Marxism and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Daniel Little

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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. Lukàcs, 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); see also bibliographies under Marx, Karl; communism; socialism.

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Marxism The body of theory and diverse political practices and policies associated with (or justified by reference to) the writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. For a substantial part of the twentieth century, and until the closing years of the millennium, Marxism was the alleged organizing principle of societies which contained more than one-third of the earth's population. Its influence on culture, history, sociology, politics, economics, and philosophy is explained and documented in David McLellan ( ed.) , Marx: The First Hundred Years (1983)
. However, one of the best treatments is still to be found in C. Wright Mills , The Marxists (1962)
, which offers an especially useful introduction for students of sociology because it is suitably sceptical and avoids Marxist jargon.

In one way the political success of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) in establishing itself as the principal voice of the German working-class movement in the 1880s was unfortunate for the further development of Marxism as an intellectual and sociological system. This success encouraged the premature systematization of the somewhat inchoate ideas of Marx and Engels around their economic core, so that they could better serve as the doctrinal basis for what was a rapidly developing international movement (the German-led Second International). Engels's own contribution to this process, as represented by his formulation of the doctrine of dialectical materialism, was probably its critical moment.

The one undoubted benefit arising from the economically determinist nature of this systematization was a political one; namely, the fusing within social-democratic thought of Marxism's revolutionary ideas with an acceptance of so-called bourgeois democracy. (Nothing could prevent the replacement of capitalism by socialism so there was no need to challenge the fundamental rules of the democratic system.) The person most often credited with this accomplishment was the SPD's leader Karl Kautsky. Almost as soon as Kautsky's ‘orthodox Marxism’ became the dominant current within his party, it was challenged from both the right (by Eduard Bernstein's revisionism), and the left (by Rosa Luxemburg's spontaneism). Bernstein criticized the retention of Marxism's revolutionism, whilst Luxemburg was opposed to the acceptance of parliamentarianism. Luxemburg's ideas briefly challenged the dominance of those of the orthodoxy, during the course of the ill-fated Spartacist Uprising of 1918, which took place in Berlin. But Bernstein's ideas eventually triumphed over the orthodoxy at the SPD's 1959 Bad Godesburg conference.

In terms of global politics, however, what was vastly more important than these German oppositional currents in determining the fate of both socialism and Marxism for most of the twentieth century was an oppositional current that arose in Russia in the early years of the century. This was the Bolshevism fashioned by Lenin, during the course of his struggle with the Russian equivalent of German orthodox Marxism, namely Menshevism. For the reasons set out with matchless clarity by Herbert Marcuse in his Soviet Marxism (1958), the establishment of Marxism-Leninism or Stalinism as the ruling ideology of the Soviet state led to the self-strangulation of the most influential body of Marxist thought as a creative and critical enterprise. The significance of this human and intellectual tragedy was then hugely magnified by the Comintern's (and latterly the Third or Communist International's) successful export of these ideas to much of the rest of the world, most notably to China.

By contrast, although it was of course powerfully influenced by the rise of Marxism-Leninism, Marxism retained much of its critical political and intellectual edge in the non-communist world. In the underdeveloped world it helped to stimulate and guide numerous national liberation movements–although there has been considerable dispute about precisely what might be the specifically Marxist elements in some of these movements (on which point see Aiden Foster-Carter 's celebrated article on ‘Neo-Marxist Approaches to Development and Underdevelopment’, in E. de Kadt and and G. Williams ( eds.) , Sociology and Development, 1974
). In the developed world it has played an equally vital role in the emergence of the welfare state and latterly the new social movements. Here too, however, Marxism has been driven by internal disputes between different groups claiming to represent the authentic tradition established by Marx and Engels. (The most acrimonious of these debates has involved competing ‘structuralist’ and ‘humanist’ interpretations, and probably reached its nadir in the debate about the work of Althusser, as for example in E. P. Thompson's vitriolic attack on structural Marxism in his The Poverty of Theory, 1978).

In sum, despite Marxism's complicity in the crimes associated with Marxism-Leninism, with some irony it remains a highly significant element in the pursuit of knowledge and social justice in the post-communist world. It may even survive politically, in the form of the soviet as a mode of social organization, despite the statist interpretation these were given in the USSR. The concept of the soviet was inspired by an anarcho-libertarian strand in the Marxist tradition, which was suppressed and marginalized under communism, but survives in some quarters as a utopian ideal, suggesting the possibility of a society constructed on the basis of competitive, self-managing enterprises and ‘associative’, democratic political institutions. As practised in certain communes, for example, it offers an alternative to the various forms of market regimes. See also ANARCHISM; CRITICAL THEORY; HUMANISM; POST-MODERNISM; STRUCTURALISM.

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Karl Marx was born in Trier in Prussia in 1818, and he died in London in 1883. The general approach embodied in Marx's theoretical writings and his analysis of capitalism may be termed historical materialism, or the materialist interpretation of history. Indeed, that approach may well be considered the cornerstone of Marxism. Marx argued that the superstructure of society was conditioned decisively by the productive base of society, so that the superstructure must always be understood in relation to the base. The base consists of the mode of production, in which forces of production (land, raw materials, capital, and labor) are combined, and in which relations among people arise, determined by their relationship to the means of production. As Marx said in the preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy in 1859, "The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political, and intellectual life process in general." Marx considered the superstructure to include the family, the culture, the state, philosophy, and religion.

In Marx's view, all the elements of the super-structure served the interests of the dominant class in a society. He saw the class division in any society beyond a primitive level of development as reflecting the distinction between those who owned and controlled the means of production, on the one hand, and those who lacked a share of ownership and therefore were compelled to labor in the process of production, on the other hand. That fundamental division had been reproduced in various forms in the stages of European history, from ancient slaveholding society through feudalism to capitalism. In capitalist society (which was the main subject of Marx's writings) the crucial axis of social conflict was between the capitalist class, or bourgeoisie, and the industrial working class, or proletariat. Marx attempted to demonstrate that the antagonism between those classes would continue to intensify, until the workers' revolution would destroy capitalism and usher in communism.

The dialectical mode of interpretation found a new application in Marx's analysis of the development of the capitalist economy. Marx claimed to have detected three "laws of capitalist development": the constant accumulation of capital, the increasing concentration of capital, and the increasing misery of the proletariat. Those laws spelled the progressive polarization of society between an expanding number of impoverished and exploited workers and a decreasing number of wealthy capitalists. As the system became more technologically advanced and productive, the mass of the people in the system would become more destitute and more desperate. The common experience of exploitation would forge powerful solidarity within the ranks of the proletariat, who at the height of the final crisis of capitalism would rise in revolution and expropriate the property of the capitalist class.

Marx wrote far more about capitalism than about the society that would follow the proletarian revolution. He made it clear, however, that he expected the revolution of the working class to socialize the means of production and create a dictatorship of the proletariat. That dictatorship would be the workers' state, but its existence would be temporary, as society moved from the first, transitional phase of communism to the higher phase, in which the full potential of communism would be realized, so that class differences would have disappeared, the state would have died off, and each person would contribute to society according to personal ability and receive material benefits according to need.

Before the end of the nineteenth century Marx's theory and his revolutionary vision had been embraced by the leaders of socialist parties in a number of European countries. The spread of Marxism's influence was soon followed by schisms in international socialism, however. By the end of World War I, a fundamental split had taken place between Lenin's version of Marxism in the Soviet Union (which after Lenin's death became known as Marxism-Leninism) and the democratically oriented socialism of major Western socialist parties, which stemmed from the revisionism of Eduard Bernstein. The legacy of that division was a rivalry between socialist and communist parties, which was to hamper the left-wing forces in continental European countries for several decades. Ironically, though Marx's theory suggested that proletarian revolutions would triumph in the most economically advanced capitalist nations, during the twentieth century successful revolutions under the banner of Marxism and in the name of the proletariat were carried off only in countries with mainly agrarian economies, in which industrialization was in its early stages and the working class was relatively small.

See also: communism; dialectical materialism; dictatorship of the proletariat; socialism


Avineri, Shlomo. (1971). Karl Marx: Social and Political Thought. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Evans, Alfred B., Jr. (1993). Soviet Marxism-Leninism: The Decline of an Ideology. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Kolakowski, Leszek. (1978). Main Currents of Marxism: Its Rise, Growth, and Dissolution. 3 vols. Oxford, UK: Clarendon.

Leonhard, Wolfgang. (1974). Three Faces of Marxism: The Political Concepts of Soviet Ideology, Maoism, and Humanist Marxism, tr. Ewald Osers. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Alfred B. Evans> Jr.

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Marxism School of socialism that arose in 19th-century Europe as a response to the growth of industrial capitalism. It is named after Karl Marx. According to Marxism, a communist society was historically inevitable. Capitalism, because of its emphasis on profits, would eventually so reduce the condition of workers that they would rebel, overthrow the capitalists, and establish a classless society in which the means of production were collectively owned. The Communist Manifesto (1848) and Das Kapital (1867, 1885, 1894) both contain ideas central to Marxism, which forms the basis of communism and strongly influenced the related ideology, socialism. See also class; dialectical materialism; Lenin; Mao Zedong

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Marxism the political and economic theories of the German political philosopher and economists Karl Marx (1818–83) and Friedrich Engels (1820–95), later developed by their followers to form the basis for the theory and practice of communism.

Central to Marxist theory is an explanation of social change in terms of economic factors, according to which the means of production provide the economic base which influences or determines the political and ideological superstructure. Marx and Engels predicted the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism by the proletariat and the eventual attainment of a classless communist society.

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Marxist sociology

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"Marxist sociology." A Dictionary of Sociology. . Retrieved January 19, 2017 from


Marx·ism / ˈmärkˌsizəm/ • n. the political and economic theories of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, later developed by their followers to form the basis for the theory and practice of communism. DERIVATIVES: Marx·i·an / -sēən/ adj. Marx·ist n. & adj.

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"Marxism." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . 19 Jan. 2017 <>.

"Marxism." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . (January 19, 2017).

"Marxism." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Retrieved January 19, 2017 from



This entry includes three subentries:

Latin America

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"Marxism." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . 19 Jan. 2017 <>.

"Marxism." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . (January 19, 2017).

"Marxism." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . Retrieved January 19, 2017 from