Marxism: Overview

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Marxism: Overview

Few sets of ideas are richer and more conflicted than those that have been put forward under the heading of Marxism. Marxism's founder, the German philosopher Karl Marx (18181883), had a wide-ranging curiosity about many aspects of humankind and a stamina matching his curiosity. But as the American philosopher Sidney Hook pointed out in his article on Marxism in the 1973 edition of the Dictionary of the History of Ideas, Marxism is more than simply "the ideas of Karl Marx" (vol. 3, p. 146); it also includes a vast array of thinking that took its point of departure from Marx. Indeed, Hook suggested that what Marx (and his friend, Friedrich Engels [18201895]) really meant is "by far not as significant as what they have been taken to mean" (p. 147). However, it seems clear that an understanding of both the original and the derived ideas is needed for an adequate understanding of Marxism.

The Critical Project of Karl Marx

Marx fits within a wider group of Western thinkers who, beginning in the seventeenth century, offered new, secularized answers to the old questions, What is the good life for human beings? and, How is that life to be attained? In part, Marx was a laughing heir of the eighteenth-century Enlightenmenta thinker far more optimistic about human prospects than almost all his predecessors. Yet there is also a basso profundo in his thinking, a sense of the immensity of pain and suffering that will be needed before humans can hope to become the free, autonomous, rational, loving, creative, communal beings that he hoped would eventually make their way on the earth.

Among major predecessors of Marx's social theory are Thomas Hobbes (15881679), John Locke (16321704), Jean-Jacques Rousseau (17121778), and Adam Smith (17231790). Marx was also influenced by conceptions of the self associated with the German Romantic tradition. Many intellectual tendencies found their way into his thinking through the philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (17701831), whose lectures (published shortly after his death) and books sought to cover the entire range of human culture. Further, although Marx's orientation was relentlessly secular, there are residues in his thinking of some religious conceptions. He continued, in a secular and universalized form, Christian conceptions of perfection. Further, as Warren Breckman has shown, his notion of humanity emerged from a theological debate concerning the personality of God.

Marx was born in Trier in the Rhineland region, which after the defeat of Napoléon in 1815 was ruled by conservative Prussia. Marx's father was obliged to convert from Judaism to Lutheranism in order to keep his position as a lawyer in the local court system. In 1835 Karl went to universityfirst to Bonn, the next year to Berlin. Although for career reasons his father wanted Marx to study law, Karl quickly gravitated to philosophy. He found the law too limiting, and he also believed for a time that, by pointing out inadequacies in existing institutions, philosophy could help bring about progressive change in Germany.


From 1837 onward Marx absorbed from Hegel's writings, as well as from the generalized Newtonianism then dominant, a particular understanding of what a properly rational, scientific knowledge of the world requires (Megill, chap. 1). Such an understanding, Marx held, must be universal in form and must generate necessary rather than merely probable knowledge. Further, Hegel regarded human history as a rational process of intellectual and cultural advance, analogous to the progress of knowledge that he saw in the history of philosophy, and Marx adopted this view also. Hegel held that philosophy advances by means of rational debate (called "dialectic" in Greek). Sharpening Hegel, Marx interpreted dialectic as requiring critique of the existing order.

After finishing his doctoral dissertation, on ancient philosophy, in 1841, Marx became an oppositional journalist. In October 1843 he moved to Paris, which was the center of European radicalism and the largest city on the European continent. Here he coedited a critical journal that was to be smuggled into Germany. He also intended to complete a critique of Hegel's political theory and to write a political history of revolutionary France. Meanwhile, in the streets, bars, cafés, and meeting rooms of Paris he discovered the revolutionary agent that he concluded would overthrow the existing orderthe working class or, as he called it, the proletariat.

Estrangement (alienation).

By July 1844 Marx had abandoned political theory and political history (although he never abandoned political activism, to which he devoted intense time and energy). Instead he turned to a critique of economics. In his "Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts" (May/JuneAugust 1844; published 1932) and in related manuscripts, Marx analyzed the claims of such economists as David Ricardo (17721823) and James Mill (17731836). Notably, he criticized them for ignoring the "estrangement" (or alienation) that he saw workers as subjected to in a private-property-based economic system. Workers do not find either gratification or the possibility of self-development in their work. The products of their labor become a means for oppressing them. They become estranged from each other.

Marx borrowed the notion of estrangement from the critical theologian Ludwig Feuerbach (18041872). In his Essence of Christianity (1841), Feuerbach had argued that religion estranges human beings from their best qualities, which are attributed to God, Christ, and so on. Religion therefore needs to be superseded by a this-worldly humanism. Marx's innovation was to apply Feuerbach's critique of religion to economic theory and economic life.

Marx also contended, although elliptically, that the system of private property and exchange (buying and selling) is irrational: it is unplanned, it results in an unpredictable rise and fall of prices, and it has no intelligible historical progression.

History of production and needs.

In January 1845 Marx moved to Brussels. In collaboration with the young businessman Engels, who had recently become his friend, he wrote The German Ideology (18451846; published 1932). Part 1, mostly Marx's work, sketches out a rational history of humankind, focused not on philosophy but on humans' actions to wrest a living from the material world. Using their intelligence, human beings develop their "productive forces," which improve over time. More advanced productive forces continually come into conflict with the retrograde forms by which society and production are organized (later, Marx and Engels would call these forms "relations of production"). History up to now, Marx and Engels held, has been dominated by class conflict: famously, they declared in their revolutionary pamphlet The Communist Manifesto (1848) that "the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles." In their view, these struggles are all ultimately rooted in conflict between forces and relations of production.

Marx (and Engels) also asserted that history would culminate in a socialist society that would function without a political state and without private property and exchange. However, they offered only sketchy accounts as to how this society would actually operate.

The revolutions of 1848 and an analysis of capitalism.

The revolutions of 1848 disappointed Marx, for the established order proved remarkably successful in thwarting politicallet alone socialreform. Marx responded to the disappointment by turning to a serious analysis of "the capitalist mode of production." Now living in London, he began in 1851 to study the economy systematically. After a massive effort of research, he published Capital (Das Kapital ), volume 1, in 1867. Although never finished, Capital is rightly regarded as Marx's most important work. In it, he attempted to penetrate beneath the arbitrary, merely surface phenomena of economic life to what he saw as capitalism's deep structure.

Adding to his earlier claims about estrangement, Marx in Capital focused to a greater degree than earlier on what he saw as the irrational and exploitative aspects of capitalism. Under capitalism, he held, workers are necessarily exploitedthat is, they are deprived of the "surplus value" that their labor creates. Exploitation, he contended, is unavoidable as long as the capitalist system (oriented to private property and the market) exists.

Most subsequent economists rejected Marx's claim that labor is the sole creator of value, as well as his related assumption that the value of a commodity somehow exists objectively in the commodity. However, two of Marx's general contentions have not yet been proved false. First, he was persuaded that capitalism has a built-in dynamism, a tendency to transform its own conditions of production. Indeed, in The Communist Manifesto he and Engels were perhaps the first to sketch out the process of worldwide capitalist expansion and transformation that we now call "globalization." Second, he held that exploitation under capitalism does not arise from the good or bad intentions of individuals, but is systemic. Position in the system, not greater intelligence or harder work, is the most likely explanation for why the coffee futures trader in New York makes vastly more money than the small coffee producer in Central America.

Necessity of revolution.

The convinced, root-and-branch Marxist claims that capitalism must be destroyed because it necessarily brings with it estrangement, exploitation, and a disorderly irrationality (overproduction, underconsumption, boom-and-bust economic cycles). The root-and-branch Marxist holds that piecemeal reform of the system is insufficient to solve these problems. He or she also holds that capitalism will be destroyedit is doomed to collapse.

Insistence that capitalism cannot be reformed and that the proletariat (the industrial working class) is the revolutionary class that will destroy it were the two touchstones of Marx's thinking from 18431844 onward. To be sure, in his later years Marx suggested that in some countries revolution might occur by electoral rather than by solely violent means, and Engels shared this view. But this was not a rejection of revolution, which in Marx's lexicon equates not to violence, but to a radical transformation of the dominant economic and social system however achieved.

A conceptual treasure-trove.

Marx wrote interestingly on more topics than the ones noted above. His letters, published works, and manuscripts contain many false starts, curiosity-driven meanderings, pregnant suggestions, intelligent analyses, incipient but never fully developed theories, and journalistic commentaries on current events, as well as reservations concerning some of his own views. He was often insistently dogmatic, and yet at other times surprisingly flexible. Toward the end of his life, he rebelled against a dogmatic tendency that he detected among some of his followers, declaring "I am not a Marxist."

Doctrinal Marxism

During the 1880s and 1890s Marxism became doctrine in many European labor and working-class political organizations. Its scientism accorded with the spirit of the age. Its prediction that capitalism cannot escape economic crisis seemed congruent with the so-called Great Depression of 18731896. Marxism spread through the German Social Democratic Party after the chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, instituted the antisocialist laws (1878), and in the wake of the party's legalization (1890) became its official ideology (1891). Although in other countries Marxism was less prominent, by around 1900 it was certainly the most influential left-wing ideology in Europe.

The main intellectual basis of doctrinal Marxism was Engels's version of Marx. Engels embedded Marx's analysis and critique of capitalism in a general view of history, which he in turn embedded in an ontological theory. As a theorist, Marx himself was mainly concerned with understanding the "economic law of motion of modern society" (Capital, 1st ed. preface), and after 1845 he rarely thought in more general terms. But in Socialism: Utopian and Scientific (1880) and other writings, Engels portrayed Marx as the discoverer of a general theory of history, which Engels called "the materialist conception of history" or "historical materialism" (terms never used by Marx). Engels also contended that "scientific socialism" includes a theory of reality in general, according to which reality is material and dialectical (conflict-driven). Marx himself never put forward such a theory.

In Engels's version, Marxism claimed to be an all-embracing science. Whereas other socialisms are utopian, Marxism has the measure of the world as it is. In his 1883 "Speech at Marx's Graveside," Engels declared that Marx had discovered "the law of development of human history," just as Darwin had (allegedly) discovered the law of development of organic nature. In an age enamored of natural science, such claims were the way to popularity. But the result was to downplay Marx's early concern with human activity or praxis and his critique of estrangement. Relatedly, Engels misrepresented Marx's relation to Hegel.

Doctrinal Marxism to 1914

Leszek Kolakowski has referred to 18891914, the period of the second Socialist International, as "the golden age" of Marxism. The Socialist International was an organization, founded at a congress in Paris in 1889, that aimed to encourage cooperation among the socialist parties of the different European countries. Admittedly, in this period Marxism began to acquire something of the rigid and schematic character of a catechism, but among both Marxists and people who were just interested in Marxism, serious discussion of unclear points nonetheless took place. These included such questions as the following: If there is a law of development of human history, how does it operate? Does an explicitly normative or ethical dimension need to be added to "scientific socialism"? How is the economic "base" related to the legal, political, and cultural "superstructure"? Is socialism the inevitable outcome of capitalist development, or is it only one possibility? Is reform a worthy goal, or should Marxists focus entirely on revolution? Should socialist parties form alliances with non-socialist parties? How violent will the revolution be? Can a socialist worldview legitimately make use of non-Marxian resources?

Most (perhaps all) exponents of Marxism agreed that the goal of human history is some sort of exploitation-free society without class or other kinds of divisions, with a full development of science and technology and true freedom. The disagreements were about how this goal was to be achieved.

Revisionism and antirevisionism.

Marx predicted that capitalism would collapse under the combined weight of its economic difficulties and the proletariat's uprising against it. But by the late nineteenth century it was clear that economic upswing and actual or anticipated gains from trade unions and socialist parties were keeping revolution on the back burner. Few workers were revolutionary. In spite of its official Marxism after 1891, the actual orientation of German Social Democracy was deeply reformist. In response to this reality, the party activist and journalist Eduard Bernstein (18501932) argued in Die Voraussetzungen des Sozialismus und die Aufgaben der Sozialdemokratie (1899; translated as Evolutionary Socialism [1909]) that the collapse of capitalism is neither imminent nor inevitable, that the number of property owners is increasing, and that socialism is more likely to be achieved by gradual reform within capitalism than by revolution. Although a large minority of German Social Democrats agreed with Bernstein, such party leaders as Karl Kautsky (18541938) and August Bebel (18401913), as well as theorists outside Germany, excoriated Bernstein's "revisionism." Bernstein's opponents rightly saw that revolution was central for Marx. They were anxious to maintain unity and commitment in the socialist movement. And Bernstein's claims did not have anything like apodictic certainty. Even much later than 1899 it remained plausible to believe that capitalism was doomed, as the flourishing of Marxism during the 1930s depression shows.

Marxist theorists and party leaders, as well as other interested observers, responded to Bernstein in various ways. Kautsky repeated the increasingly hackneyed claim that the necessary development of the historical process will lead to revolution, a position that relieved Social Democrats of any need to act to bring the revolution about. The French social theorist Georges Sorel (18471922) scorned both Bernstein and orthodox Marxists like Kautsky and contended for a revolutionary movement committed to what Sorel called "the myth of the general strike," that would see its goal as a total, apocalyptic transformation of the world. The Russian revolutionary V. I. Lenin (18701924) opted for a centralized, vanguard party that would guide the too-hesitant proletariat toward revolution. The German (also Jewish-Polish) Social Democrat Rosa Luxemburg (18701919) polemicized against party bureaucracy and against Leninist top-down centralism, and in the face of massive contrary evidence put her faith in spontaneous revolt by the proletariat. The French socialist leader Jean Jaurès (18591914) supported Kautsky against Bernstein, and held that socialism would come about by revolution. But at the same time he was a natural conciliator and a moralist, having none of the characteristics of a revolutionary.

Kantian Marxism.

Another type of Marxism in this period modified or even abandoned Marxist (actually Engelsian) historical theory. The Italian philosopher Antonio Labriola (18431904) anticipated a heterodox strand in post-1917 Marxism in his attempt to show that Marxism takes its point of departure from human praxis, or action, which he saw as including all aspects of human life, including intellectual activity. Other Marxist thinkers insisted (contra both Engels and Marx himself) that Marxism needs a normative dimension, the movement of history being irrelevant to what human beings ought to desire. The influential school of "Austro-Marxists," involving such figures as Max Adler (18731937), Otto Bauer (18811938), and Rudolf Hilferding (18771941), adopted this position.

The Austro-Marxists also argued against the Leninist tendency to reduce theoretical ideas to mere weapons in the class struggle: instead, they held that Marxist theory ought to appeal to all rational minds. They likewise linked Marxism to a Kantian moral universalism. Like other Kant-inclined Marxists elsewhere, they held that socialism and the Kantian ideal of a "kingdom of ends" are congruent. Individual human beings should never be treated as mere means toward the development of some higher good. Such views were far distant from the theory and practice of Leninism.

After 1914: Leninism and Marxism-Leninism

The rise of Leninism dramatically changed the complexion of Marxism. As Neil Harding has argued, Marxism in its guise as "a theory and practice of revolutionary transformation" was virtually dead by 1914 (p. 114). Although many Marxists still made use of revolutionary rhetoric, the advance of political democracy, economic improvement, and the failure of class polarization to occur militated against revolutionary action. But in August 1914, World War I began, and all the national parties in the Socialist International supported their respective governments in the war crisis, although they had sworn not to do so. Lenin, head of the revolutionary Bolshevik wing of the Russian Social Democratic Party, was enraged at the apostasy of virtually all "orthodox" Marxists. More than this, he quickly came to see the war as marking the total bankruptcy of capitalist civilization, which in his view had forfeited its right to exist.

In response to the crisis of 1914, Lenin, living in exile in Switzerland, formulated a distinctive version of Marxism, which first took shape in his pamphlet Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, written in Zurich in 19151916 and published in Russia in April 1917, after he had returned there in the wake of the February Revolution. By a combination of intelligence, a focus on essentials, brilliant organization, ruthlessness, and luck, Lenin and his colleagues, notably Leon Trotsky (18791940), seized power in the October 1917 revolution (actually, more a coup d'état than a revolution), and held onto it. The regime that they established in the former Russian Empire (reconstituted as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics [USSR] in 1922) promoted the Leninist interpretation of Marxism as the authoritative version. Later, under the auspices of Joseph Stalin (18791953), the authoritative version came to be known as "Marxism-Leninism."

In the period of the Cold War, the world was dominated by a bipolar conflict between "the West" and "the Communist world." Communist regimes claimed to take their inspiration from the so-called "classic writers of Marxism-Leninism." At a minimum these included Marx himself, Engels, and Lenin. (Other figures also achieved canonical authority where they had the power to impose it, notably Stalin and Mao Zedong [18931976].) For much of the twentieth century it was overwhelmingly Marxism-Leninism that defined Marxism, and the fate of Marxism-Leninism was closely tied to the fate of the USSR. Even now the popular image of Marxism most often simply reproduces the Marxist-Leninist version. There are even theorists who claim that there is no "authentic Marx" apart from Lenin.

Lenin before Leninism.

The central problem that faced Lenin before 1914 was the problem of how socialist revolution was to be brought about in Russia, where industry, by 1900, had barely developed and where most of the population were illiterate peasants of diverse nationalities. In the face of this problem and in response to disagreements within the Russian Social Democratic Party, Lenin, in his 1902 pamphlet What Is to Be Done?, laid great emphasis on party organization. Attacking Russian colleagues who celebrated a "spontaneous" awakening of the proletariat and who denigrated "theory" and "method," he argued that workers left to their own resources cannot go beyond a "trade union consciousness." Only with guidance from a centrally organized party of professional revolutionaries in possession of the right (Marxist) theory can the proletariat rise up to revolutionary consciousness and action.

Some commentators have seen Lenin's position as involving a kind of conspiratorial Jacobinism or Blanquism foreign to the spirit of Marx himself. (Blanquism was so named after the French activist Louis Auguste Blanqui [18051881], an advocate of the forcible seizure of political power by professional revolutionaries.) But this criticism is mistaken. First, in 1902 and even much later, Lenin held that the success of revolution in Russia depended on socialist revolution also breaking out in the more advanced countries to Russia's west. Second, Marx himself faced, in his early years, the problem of how revolution was to come to Germany, which at that time was economically backward in comparison to France, Belgium, and England. In the same essay in which he announced his "discovery" of the proletariat, he also asserted emphatically that revolution will come to Germany when philosophy (theory) allies itself with the oppressed proletariat's practical experience. Marx did not claim that the oppressed weavers of Silesia would become conscious of their situation on their own (Marx, "Introduction" to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's "Philosophy of Right," published February 1844). In short, only the intelligentsia is capable of revealing to the proletariat the true meaning of its own experience.

Capitalism and imperialism.

Lenin's immediate reaction to the outbreak of World War I was to engage in "a doctrinaire restatement of the fundamentals of Marxism" (Harding, p. 77). He then turned to an attempt to reconstruct the deep roots of Marxism in Hegel's thought, which led him to conclude that his fellow Marxists had failed to understand Marx's dialectical method, which always looks to find contradictions in existing reality.

Lenin also concluded that other Marxists had failed to understand the actual situation of capitalism in its contemporary guise. In Lenin's view, capitalism had now entered into the stage of state-directed violence. Its economic contradictions were such that they could only be overcome, temporarily, by an imperialist expansion enabling the extraction of super-profits from less-developed countries. Capitalism now constituted a world system, and Lenin argued that the system was destined to break at its weakest link, which was most likely to be at the peripheryfor example, Russia. Thus, on returning to Russia in April 1917, Lenin felt justified in proclaiming that a socialistand not just a bourgeoisrevolution was underway.

Leninism and science.

Lenin's views altered to some extent in the difficult years from 1917 to his death in 1924. The complexities must be left aside here. The central point is that notions of open discussion and mass participation quickly disappeared from the horizon of the regime. Rather, the party, and in particular its highest leaders, came to substitute for the proletariat, which itself amounted to only a small part of the population of the USSR.

The theoretical justification for this development was to be found ultimately in Marx's commitment to science. It is not for nothing that in December 1920 Lenin announced that "Communism is Soviet power plus electrification of the whole country" ("Soviet [worker-council] power" quickly faded, however). In theory, all decisions were to be made on the basis of expert, scientific knowledge, and politics was to fade from view. In practice, the attempt to impose decisions on the countryto make the country conform to the theorywas undoubtedly an important reason why the USSR under Stalin became a tyranny the likes of which had never before been seen.

In the canonical form that it acquired by the late 1930s, Marxism-Leninism claimed to offer the explanatory key to all of reality. The term associated with this monism was "dialectical materialism" (coined by the Russian Marxist G. V. Plekhanov [18571918] in 1890). Unimportant before 1917, in the Soviet period dialectical materialism became a widely used shorthand term for Marxism, in large measure as a result of Stalin's efforts. According to dialectical materialism, an inexorable developmental process permeates all of reality. The struggles that occur in human history are merely one manifestation of this process. We are thus in a position to know that history will lead, with utter inevitability, through the travails of the present to the sunny uplands of socialism.

It is often assumed that Marx himself was a "dialectical materialist." The theory of dialectical materialism was originated by Engels. It is not articulated in any of Marx's own writings. Both Marx and Engels claimed that Marxian socialism was scientific, but it was Engels who intuited that many potential adherents of Marxism were looking for an all-embracing worldview. Purporting to explain everything, dialectical materialism aimed to displace all competing worldviews, notably religion. To its adherents, it offered a sense of certainty. In Stalin's calculation, this sense of certainty served the interests of the bureaucratic tyranny that he established over the USSR.

Advance and retreat of Marxism-Leninism.

Marxism-Leninism prescribed a way out of backwardness through revolution, science, and rationality that many intellectuals in Asia, Africa, and Latin America found appealing. For over half a century it had a significant following in the "underdeveloped" world. However, few Marxist-Leninist regimes came into being independently of the direct application of military force by the USSR. In order to succeed, revolutionary movements needed a favorable concatenation of circumstances and an indigenous cadre of militants willing to adjust their message to suit the audience. This did happen in China. In 1926 urban workers made up only 0.5 percent of the Chinese population. As Mao Zedong saw in his prescient "Report on the Peasant Movement in Hunan" (1927), the party had to appeal to the peasantry. The People's Republic of China came into being in 1949 as a result of a successful mobilizing of a revolutionary peasantry. Meanwhile, in the wake of World War II the Soviet Union and its victorious army imposed Marxism-Leninism on Eastern Europe.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the fundamental fact confronting doctrinal Marxism was the all but total disappearance of Marxist-Leninist regimes and movements. Over the course of a generation and more, the Soviet Union became more and more sclerotic and then, in 1991, collapsed, having already lost its Eastern European satellites in 1989. Meanwhile, the People's Republic of China turned toward participation in the market following the "Reform and Opening" process initiated by Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s. By 2004, only a few countries, notably Cuba and North Korea, were still claiming to be built on Marxist-Leninist principles.

As for large-scale Marxist or Marxist-Leninist political movements, by 2004 none existed. When the Leninist regime in the USSR was being consolidated, some elements of European social democracy set themselves up as the avowedly democratic wing of Marxism in opposition to Leninism. But social democracy's Marxism became attenuated over time, eventually disappearing into a generalized commitment to social welfare and to some measure of social and economic egalitarianism.

Marxism beyond Doctrinal Marxism

A large body of Marxian writing and reflection lies beyond the framework of doctrinal Marxism. Until World War II almost all of this "independent Marxism"as we might call itemerged within the framework of, or at least in close dialogue with, doctrinal Marxism. After World War II, this changed, for much Marxian reflection was carried out in essential independence from both official Marxism-Leninism and from whatever Marxist residues remained in the social democratic movement. In addition to independent Marxists, there were many scholars and intellectuals who deployed Marxian perspectives without accepting Marxism as a whole and usually without even considering themselves Marxists. This is a tradition that goes back to the early twentieth century. By the end of the twentieth century it was certainly the dominant mode of serious intellectual work and reflection in a Marxian register. Of course, one encounters a difficulty here, for at this point one reaches the boundary of what can legitimately be called Marxism.

Existential Marxism.

Another difficulty is that of characterizing in a general way the Marxisms that diverge from doctrinal Marxism. Beyond social-democratic and Marxist-Leninist Marxisms, Hook identified a third, post-1945 variant: existential Marxism. In doing so he inflated the significance of a relatively minor school of mainly French Marxists. Still, Hook's category does point in the direction of at least two significant developments in post-1945 Marxism. First, after about 1950, much effort went into reinterpreting Marx in the light of the "Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts," which revealed a "humanist" Marx different from the Marx of Marxism-Leninism. While Marx was no existentialist, his early interest in estrangement and in activity do reveal affinities with existentialism. Second, an important development since World War II among persons sympathetic to Marxism has been the impulse to work in the mode of "Marxism and "combining Marxism with something else, whether method, school, commitment, or discipline. In offering an existentially inflected Marxism in his Critique of Dialectical Reason (1960), the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (19051980) was operating in just this sort of combinatory mode. A German-Jewish refugee to the United States, Herbert Marcuse (18981979), engaged in a similar effort, variously combining a Marxian perspective with Freud (Eros and Civilization, 1955) and with vaguely Heideggerian notions of an oppressive modernity (One-Dimensional Man, 1964). Other combinations involved less an attempt to combine Marxism with some other perspective than an attempt to apply Marxism to an implied object of study. It was a potentially unending intellectual game, for one could pair Marx with other partners virtually at will: a short list includes feminism, structuralism, psychoanalysis, ecology, anthropology, history, literary criticism, literary theory, film studies, and cultural studies. Although it involves much question-begging, the game still continues.

Western Marxism.

Other commentators have identified a tradition of "Western Marxism." "Western Marxism" is largely a post hoc imposition. Still, the category can help us to see common features in a large body of Marxist theory that first emerged as a challenge to Engelsian and Leninist versions of Marxism. The unintending founder of Western Marxism was György Lukács (18851971), whose History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics (1923) was actually written in defense of "orthodox Marxism." But in the midst of defending orthodox Marxism, Lukács emphasized two concepts that were to be important for Western Marxism. One was estrangement (which he intuited in Marx without having read the then-unavailable "Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts"). The other was totality. The gist of this latter concept is the claim that the correct understanding of any reality requires that one first understand it as a whole (which among other things, involves understanding its place within the historical process), rather than arriving at conclusions about it solely by induction from particulars. Lukács held that bourgeois empiricists, as well as some Marxists, had failed to understand this point. A second theorist often seen as a founder of Western Marxism was Karl Korsch (18861961), who in Marxism and Philosophy (1923) and other writings emphasized that Marxism is primarily concerned with human practice (praxis) and, like Lukács, criticized positivist or empiricist versions of Marxism.

Other theorists commonly associated with so-called Western Marxism include Karl Korsch (18861961), Antonio Gramsci (18911937), Ernst Bloch (18851977), Herbert Marcuse, Henri Lefebvre (19051991), Sartre, Maurice Merleau-Ponty (19081961), and the "Frankfurt School" theorists Walter Benjamin (18921940), Max Horkheimer (18951973), and Theodor Adorno (19031969). What is most striking about the "Western Marxists" is that none of them focused on Marxism's basic socioeconomic claims. They either directly assert or implicitly assume the truth of these claims, but they never see the need to show that they are true in fact. For example, Lukács emphatically saw the proletariat as the "identical subject-object" of history, but he never did the work to show how this must be so. The omission was made easier by the fact that Western Marxists focused overwhelmingly on culture, social consciousness, and ideology rather than on economics. For example, Gramsci is best known for his notion of hegemony, a kind of updated notion of ideology; Benjamin was a brilliant cultural and literary critic; and Adorno offered a cutting analysis of "the culture industry."

One historian of Western Marxism, Martin Jay, has noted that a loss of confidence in the validity and usefulness of Western Marxism occurred by the late 1970s, after a brief period in which it had attracted some young, leftist, mainly American academics. The reasons for this deflation are no doubt complex, as are the reasons for the decline of Marxism generally. One crucial consideration is that thinking persons can hardly go on begging the question as to the truth of a theory's basic claims for long before doubts need to be addressed. It is "no accident," as a Marxist might say, that such figures as Jürgen Habermas (b. 1929), scion of the Frankfurt School, and Agnes Heller (b. 1929), Lukács's most distinguished student, took issue, sooner or later, with Marxism.

By the 1970s, commitment to Marxism was not easy to maintain, for there had been too much experience contrary to Marx's hopes and predictions. Marx's claim that capitalism was doomed to collapse in a proletarian revolution had to face both the failure of any unified proletariat to appear and the fact that the institutions of capitalist society had managed to muddle through again and again. Marx's claim that socialism would be better than capitalism had to face both the experiential disconfirmation offered by actually existing communist states, and a serious argument, first articulated by Ludwig von Mises in 1920, to the effect that a complex nonmarket economy cannot operate efficiently, because markets are indispensable information-gathering mechanisms (see Steele).

Analytical Marxism.

Although various claims central to Marxism no longer seem tenable, Marxism has a legitimate survival in at least two respects. First, Marxism exists as a set of suggestions for research, for Marx offered many specific claims and suggestions concerning modern society and politics. Some of these are false, as Richard Hamilton has shown. But others, particularly when reformulated as abstract theoretical claims to be tested in specific present-day contexts, remain alive in current social science. For example, Marxism has been influential in recent thinking about international political economyhardly surprising, in the light of Marx and Engels's early insistence on capitalism's global character. It has influenced thinking about state power, a theme emphasized by the Marxist political theorists Ralph Miliband (19241994) and Nicos Poulantzas (19361979) and picked up by others subsequently (see Aronowitz and Bratsis). It has influenced thinking about democratizationin particular, the thinking of those political scientists concerned with the relation between class structure and democracy. Finally, it has helped to inspire empirical research into the workings of class in modern society.

A question that arises in relation to such studies is: How Marxist are they? Clearly, they are not Marxist by the standards of revolutionary Marxism, since they are academic studies and not attempts to promote the revolution (at most, such researchers hope to encourage reform). But since in 2004 there exist virtually no active Marxian revolutionaries apart from the small circle of Nepalese Maoists, this is a high standard. By less stringent standards, such studies may well be Marxist in a looser sensein the sense of taking Marx seriously, working within a tradition of Marxism, using Marxian language, and maintaining a normative commitment to the values of freedom, equality, and human dignity. Certainly, in the late 1970s a small but lively group of Anglo-American academics began to identify themselves as "analytical" or "rational choice" Marxists (see Roemer, Wright, and Wright et al.). However, insofar as their investigations were integrated into fields or subfields in political science, economics, sociology, and so on, these tended to become "research" rather than "Marxist research."

Thus one meets again a boundary, where what is valid in Marxism passes over into an intellectual territory that is no longer Marxist. Some writers, notably Ernesto Laclau (b. 1935) and Chantal Mouffe (b. 1943) have called this territory "post-Marxism" (see Sim). In the eyes of such writers, post-Marxism involves a reformulation of Marxism in order to accommodate such "movements" as poststructuralism, postmodernism, and second-wave feminism. Here Marxism appears, not as a set of analyzable propositions, but, in a much more attenuated guise, as a form of critique and of hope from which almost all specifically Marxian claims have disappeared. This is the second way in which Marxism continues to have a legitimate survival in the twenty-first century.

See also Capitalism ; Communism ; Economics ; Hegelianism ; Kantianism ; Maoism ; Revolution ; Socialism .



Lenin, V. I. The Lenin Anthology. Edited by Robert C. Tucker. New York: Norton, 1975. Possibly the best one-volume anthology.

Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. Collected Works. 50 vols. New York: International Publishers, 19752004. Imperfectly edited and omits some manuscript writings, but indispensable for English-readers.

. Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels Gesamtausgabe (MEGA). Berlin: Dietz, 19721999. Berlin: akademie-Verlag, 1999. Meticulously edited; will make all previous editions obsolete. Eventually 114 vols. Not to be confused with the "Old MEGA " (19271935).

. The Marx-Engels Reader. Edited by Robert C. Tucker. 2nd ed. New York: Norton, 1978. Possibly the best one-volume anthology. Makes freely available a large collection of works by many authors, beginning with Marx and Engels.


Aronowitz, Stanley, and Peter Bratsis, eds. Paradigm Lost: State Theory Reconsidered. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002. Marx's theory of the state, updated.

Avineri, Shlomo, The Social and Political Thought of Karl Marx. London: Cambridge University Press, 1968. Slightly outdated but still useful.

Bottomore, Tom, ed. A Dictionary of Marxist Thought. 2nd ed. Oxford and Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1991. Articles on major topics in Marxism.

Breckman, Warren. Marx, the Young Hegelians, and the Origins of Radical Social Theory: Dethroning the Self. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Shows connections between theological and sociopolitical concerns in the background to Marx.

Carver, Terrell, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Marx. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1991. Articles on various aspects of Marx's theoretical project.

Draper, Hal. The Marx-Engels Cyclopedia. Vol. 1: The Marx-Engels Chronicle: A Day-by-Day Chronology of Marx and Engels's Life and Activity. Vol. 2: The Marx-Engels Register: A Complete Bibliography of Marx and Engels' Individual Writings. Vol. 3: The Marx-Engels Glossary: Glossary to the Chronicle and Register, and Index to the Glossary. New York: Schocken, 19851986. Indispensable for serious research on Marx.

Fehér, Ferenc, Agnes Heller, and György Márkus. Dictatorship over Needs. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1983. Critical analysis of the "command" society that was Soviet-style socialism.

Hamilton, Richard. The Bourgeois Epoch: Marx and Engels on Britain, France, and Germany. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991. Attacks Marx and Engels's historical claims.

Harding, Neil. Leninism. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1996. Succinct, highly critical account.

Hook, Sidney. "Marxism." Dictionary of the History of Ideas. 5 vols. New York: Scribners, 1973-1974. Vol 3, pp.146161. A clear account, reacting against Stalinism. Can also be accessed at

Jay, Martin. Marxism and Totality: The Adventures of a Concept from Lukács to Habermas. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984. Charts a course through "Western Marxism."

Kolakowski, Leszek. Main Currents of Marxism: Its Rise, Growth, and Dissolution. Vol. 1: The Founders. Vol. 2: The Golden Age. Vol. 3. The Breakdown. Translated by P. S. Falla. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981. A critical account. Vol. 2 is the best volume; its coverage is unduplicated elsewhere.

McLellan, David. The Thought of Karl Marx: An Introduction. 3rd ed. Edited by David McLellan. London: Macmillan, 1995. Discusses major themes in Marx's thinking, with illustrative Marx texts; also links writings to Marx's biography. Convenient, succinct.

Megill, Allan. Karl Marx: The Burden of Reason (Why Marx Rejected Politics and the Market). Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2002. Impact of Hegelian philosophy on Marx.

Roemer, John, ed. Analytical Marxism. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986. Essays by G. A. Cohen, Jon Elster, and others.

Sassoon, Donald. One Hundred Years of Socialism: The West European Left in the Twentieth Century. New York: New Press, 1996. Socialism, Marxist and not, in twentieth-century Western Europe.

Siegel, Jerrold E. Marx's Fate: The Shape of a Life. 1978. Reprint, University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993. The most intellectually serious biography.

Sim, Stuart. Post-Marxism: An Intellectual History. London and New York: Routledge, 2000. Residues of Marxism after the collapse.

Steele, David Ramsay. From Marx to Mises: Post-Capitalist Society and the Challenge of Economic Calculation. La Salle, Ill.: Open Court, 1992. Implications of von Mises's argument against non-market socialism.

Wright, Erik Olin. "What Is Analytical Marxism?" In Rational Choice Marxism, edited by Terrell Carver and Paul Thomas, 1130. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995. Definition and defense of analytical Marxism.

Wright, Erik Olin, Andrew Levine, and Elliott Sober. Reconstructing Marxism: Essays on Explanation and the Theory of History. London and New York: Verso, 1992. Analytical reconstruction of Marxism.

Young, Robert J. C. Postcolonialism: An Historical Introduction. Oxford, and Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2001. Discusses role of Marxism in anticolonial struggles.

Allan Megill

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