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Theory in Depth
Theory in Action
Analysis and Critical Response
Topics for Further Study
See Also


Marxist theory was developed in the 1800s by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. The Marxist ideology includes a philosophy of man, a political and economic program, and a theory of history. Marx's ideas were changed and altered after his death to suit the needs of those subscribing to them, and were changed further to accommodate communism as practiced by Vladimir Lenin in the Soviet Union in the beginning of the twentieth century. The hybrid created by Lenin is commonly called Marxism–Leninism, communism, or socialism, depending on the source. Marxism is a special brand of communism, specific to the time of Karl Marx. It was instrumental in forming the ideology of modern communism as well.

Marx's philosophy of man is that humanity is defined by its ability to meet its needs. It does this by laboring on natural materials. Man does this labor for the species as well as for himself. Marx explained that all human creations, including houses, governments, food, and art, combine to create the human world which is made from the productivity of man. He argued that the entire species should benefit from this production, rather than just the producers, as in capitalism.

who controls government? Society

how is government put into power? Revolution

what roles do the people have? Work for all individuals

who controls production of goods? The people

who controls distribution of goods? The people

major figures Karl Marx; Vladimir Lenin

historical example Soviet Union, 1917–1924

Marx and Engels wrote and published The Communist Manifesto in 1848. It explains the class struggles and the historical problem between the exploiters and the exploited. Their ideas were novel in that they felt history was fueled by the changes in means of production, where other historians had written only of battles, treaties, inventions, and discoveries.


1818:      Karl Marx is born.

1848:      Marx and Engels complete The Communist Manifesto.

1867:      The first edition of Karl Marx's Das Kapital is published

1883:      Karl Marx dies.

1889:      The Second International is founded.

1902:      Lenin publishes What Is to Be Done?

1917:      Bolsheviks, led by Lenin, gain control in Russia.

1919:      Founding of the Third International.

1922:      Stalin becomes the Communist Party's general secretary.

1924:      Lenin dies; Stalin takes control of Russia.

The Marxist doctrine was refined and changed, especially after Marx's death. Engels changed the revolutionary propaganda into a more peaceful patience and a quiet confidence of the evolutionary victory of a classless society. Under Vladimir Lenin, Marxism became more removed from the proletariat. According to Lenin, the workers could not organize their own revolt and needed leaders to plan and lead the revolution. Lenin also felt that revolution could and should occur in non–industrialized and non–capitalist nations. Lenin's version of Marxism is commonly referred to as Marxism–Leninism. Joseph Stalin further altered Marxism to such a degree that it could barely even be called Marxism. His version, more so than Lenin's, effectively destroyed the equality and freedom that Marxism was designed to promote.


Socialist and Utopian Beginnings

Socialism was labeled as such in the 1820s and has since been used by Karl Marx (1818–1883) and other philosophers to describe ways to organize society. Marxism stems from socialist and communist

ideas, though Marxism itself didn't exist until the middle of the nineteenth century.

Socialists do not agree with capitalism, and believe competition between individuals breeds inequality. Cooperation is a better system to socialists, and a shared ownership of the forces of production and distribution will guarantee equality. Socialists feel that each member of society should have the same materials. Socialism does not necessarily dictate shared government, however, though some socialists are democrats.

Karl Marx was a socialist who molded some of his ideas from the ancient Greek philosopher Plato (428–348 B.C.). Plato wanted to begin a republic free of strife. He did not subscribe to democracy but rather felt that his republic should be run by "philosopher–kings," trained individuals who made the rules for everyone else to obey. Plato felt that the personal interests of the population would not necessarily be helpful for the common good but would inhibit the decision–making process. People's desires would block their judgment. Plato put community above all else.

Another socialist thinker was English statesman and author Sir Thomas More (1478–1535). He transferred the Greek word "utopia" to English to describe an island with an ideal society. The secret of the utopia's success was socialism. All the wealth was shared, and poverty and crime did not exist. Rulers were elected and there was freedom of belief. Farming, which More considered the least–favored work, was divided amongst everyone.

Two hundred years after More, Jean–Jacques Rousseau (1712–1788) created another idea of a perfect society in his works on political theory, most notably The Social Contract. He felt that people were naturally good, and that society's inequality drove evil into people. He agreed with More and Plato that community was the answer.


Karl Marx

Karl Marx was born May 5, 1818, in the Rhine province of Prussia (Germany). He was the oldest living son in a family of nine children. Both of his parents were Jewish but a year before Karl was born his father converted to the Evangelical Established Church. Young Karl was baptized when he was 6, though he was influenced more by the radical ideas of the Enlightenment than by religion. He was discriminated against because of his Jewish heritage, which may have begun his distaste for social inequality.

At the University of Berlin in 1836, Marx was introduced to George Hegel's teachings and he began his association with the Young Hegelians. Hegel's doctrines explained that when there were two ideas or desires in conflict, they would meet and form a third option better suited to both. The Young Hegelians moved toward atheism and political action and the Prussian government began to drive them from the universities.

After graduating in 1841, Marx began to contribute regularly to a newspaper in Cologne the following year. When he was the editor, the newspaper was suspended by the government soon after for its revolutionary ideas. In 1843 Marx married the daughter of a family friend, Jenny von Westphalen, and they moved to Paris. While there Marx began to associate with communist societies. He wrote The German– French Yearbooks, which did not prove very successful but created an alliance with Friedrich Engels which continued until Marx's death. Marx was expelled from France and he and Engels went to Brussels in 1845. The two men collaborated closely after that.

The Communist League was formed in 1847 and Marx and Engels were asked to write its doctrine. A year later when it was completed, the League adopted it as their manifesto. The Communist Manifesto has become one of the most important documents written about economic theory and social history. It explains that history is a series of struggles between the classes. It rejects social utopias and philosophical socialism centered around alienation. The Manifesto dictates 10 steps to communism, including progressive income tax and the abolition of inheritance.

In 1848 Marx was indicted for his writings and for advocating the nonpayment of taxes. He was acquitted, but banished from Paris. Marx went to London in 1849 and remained there for the rest of his life. He was frustrated by his failures on mainland Europe and rejoined the Communist League in London. He spent from 1850 to 1864 living in extreme poverty— Engels was supporting him financially—and relative seclusion. Several of his children died and his wife suffered breakdowns. The Marx family lived on scant means as Marx continued to write his theories.

In 1864, the International Working Men's Association was founded. Marx wrote Das Kapital, which became the bible for the International. He was sought out to be a leader and organized various parties and ideas. The International flourished and intervened in union disputes.

After the Franco–German War in 1870, Marx slowly lost control of the International and it was disbanded in 1876. Marx's energies waned and he experienced prolonged bouts of depression. He was still consulted on political matters but stayed largely removed. His wife died in 1881 and his eldest daughter in 1883. He died the following year.

Marx's most famous work, Das Kapital, became known as the "Bible of the working class" by the International Working Men's Association. The Communist Manifesto had similar weight as well, and despite Marx's poverty and struggle, he had an enormous impact on the world. Despite the apparent failure of his theories, Marx's writings remain some of the most influential ideas in human history.

The French Revolution, in conjunction with the Industrial Revolution at the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth century, had profound effects on political thinking. Europe's monarchy was brushed away and the privileges enjoyed by the clergy were invalidated. Liberty swept the land and equality became the battle cry. The populace realized that they had the power to alter the reality with which they were so unhappy. Though the Industrial Revolution was slow, it was unstoppable. Though the standard of living went up and there was more material to go around and less work needed to create it, work days for factory workers were seemingly endless and the conditions horrendous. Women and children worked for low wages and were easier to control than men. They often worked sixteen–hour shifts. Towns became crowded as people looked for work in the factories. Their needs, housing, and sanitation were ignored. Slums sprouted up everywhere. It was this poverty and dissatisfaction that made people begin to think that capitalism was not the best economic and political option.

Charles Fourier (1772–1837) felt that men were generally good and could therefore be organized into utopian societies. He envisioned communal units of 1,500 people per unit. The people would live in buildings called phalansteries, which he described in great detail. He also explained how the groups would relate to each other. Work would only be done a few hours per day, and children, who Fourier said enjoyed getting dirty, would do the unappetizing work that adults shunned. Fourier's ideas influenced many socialist communities.

Another important socialist and utopian advocate was Robert Owen (1771–1858). Shocked by the working conditions in Britain (and himself the co–owner of a large spinning mill in Scotland), he began to form ideas of his own. In his mill, the work day was only 10 hours long. Children went to school instead of to work in the factories and his workers lived in houses and had sanitation and gardens. Owen still made money, despite his fair treatment of his workers. He began New Harmony, Indiana, as a utopian community but, like the other utopias, it didn't last long— only from 1824 to 1828.

Marxist Developments

Marx's ideas on socialism were so convincing that they spawned their own term: Marxism. Marx's version of socialism not only explained the evolution of society but also examined the reasons for conflict within society. Marx grew up in Germany and was strongly influenced by his father and by his neighbor, Ludwig von Westphalen, an important political figure. Marx studied philosophy at the University of Berlin and joined the Young Hegelians, a group interested in the ideas of German philosopher George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831). The group was radical and revolutionary and, because of Marx's affiliation with them and his political activity, he was unable to get a job in academia when he received his doctorate in 1841.

He turned to journalism to make his living and edited The Rhine Newspaper (Rheinische Zeitung), until the newspaper was shut down five months later for its liberal content. Marx and his wife moved to France where, in the midst of the revolution ideology, Marx developed his theories. Marx met Friedrich Engels (1820–1895) in Paris. Marx had many novel ideas but was less adept than Engels at explaining them in print. Engels had discovered England's working class at his family's factory in Manchester in 1842. He was already a communist and began his relationship with Karl Marx two years later in 1844. The two men wrote The Holy Family and The German Ideology.

Marx's writings were controversial. He wrote a great deal about the ills of his homeland and, in 1845, Germany convinced France to expel him. Marx moved to Brussels, Belgium. Engels went with him and the two joined a group called the Communist League. In 1847 the League asked them to create a statement about its beliefs, and Marx and Engels wrote The Communist Manifesto. The Manifesto got little immediate attention because of the Revolutions throughout Europe in 1848. Marx and Engels finally got to experience the revolution about which they'd been writing. When the French government fell, Marx went to Cologne, Germany, and became the editor of The New Rhine Newspaper (Neue Rheinische Zeitung). He was in Cologne when the workers rose up in Paris. Marx supported them enthusiastically in his newspaper, but after three days of fighting the workers were defeated. Marx was arrested in Cologne. During his trial, he made a speech about the conditions in Europe and, to the surprise of many, he was acquitted. Unable to jail him, the Prussian government expelled him again. The Marxes moved to London where they spent the remainder of their years.

Marx continued to write and was supported by Engels, who went to take over the management of his father's Manchester cotton firm factory. Engels also contributed to Marx's writing of Das Kapital, his critique of capitalism—the economic data and technical information comes from Engels. Engels also completed the second and third editions of Das Kapital after Marx's death in 1883.

Marxist Decline and Revival

At that time, the industrial nations of Western Europe were in the middle of enormous social, economic, and political change. The quality of education rose and population stabilized. Child labor began was discouraged, and the Western European countries began to look for colonies to further bolster their prosperity. This "imperialism" was in the name of trade and resources. Britain, France, and Germany claimed colonies in Africa, the Near East, and Asia.

This colonialization raised worker dissatisfaction. Not only did citizens have to fight in the colonial wars, but foreign investment meant that factories would be built abroad and that there would be no new jobs at home. At the same time, conditions had improved because of the capitalist systems. France, Germany, and England were becoming increasingly democratic, and labor unions formed in France by 1884. By 1900, there were 2 million union members in England, 850,000 in Germany, and 250,000 in France. Political parties represented the working class in all three countries.

Socialism wasn't dead, however. The German Social Democratic Party, a Marxist party, was formed in 1875. Marx hadn't supported its ideology, which included state–controlled education. Marx had complained that the party's platform didn't look at the future. Socialist legislators were elected in Germany, however, despite the problems with the party.


Das Kapital

Marx's Das Kapital, first published in 1867, took him more than a quarter of a century to complete. It is an analysis of the free market economic system— the text is filled with comprehensive economic equations and hypothetical situations of workers in factories or on plantations. Marx felt that the capitalistic system created more and more wealth but was unable to use it wisely or spread it out equally. The flaws in the system exploited the masses, he said, and would continue to do so until the workers' frustrations reached the breaking point. Marx frequently breaks out of the technical prose to lash out at what he sees as inequities in the capitalistic system or his theories on economic history:

One thing, however, is clear—nature does not produce on the one side owners of money or commodities, and on the other men possessing nothing but their own labour–power. This relation has no natural basis, neither is its social basis one that is common to all historical periods. It is clearly the result of a past historical development, the product of many economical revolutions, of the extinction of a whole series of older forms of social production. (Chapter VI).

Capital is dead labour, that vampire–like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks. The time during which the labourer works is the time during which the capitalist consumes the labour–power he has purchased of him.

If the labourer consumes his disposable time for himself, he robs the capitalist.

The capitalist then takes his stand on the law of the exchange of commodities. He, like all other buyers, seeks to get the greatest possible benefit out of the use–value of his commodity. Suddenly the voice of the labourer, which had been stifled in the storm and stress of the process of production, rises. (Chapter X, Section 1).

In modern agriculture, as in the urban industries, the increased productiveness and quantity of labour set in motion are bought at the cost of laying waste and consuming by disease labour–power itself. Moreover, all progress in capitalistic agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the labourer, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time, is a progress towards ruining the lasting sources of that fertility. The more a country starts its development on the foundation of modern industry, like the United States, for example, the more rapid is this process of destruction. Capitalist production, therefore, develops technology, and the combining together of various processes into a social whole, only by sapping the original sources of all wealth—the soil and the labourer. (Chapter XV, Section 10).

Meanwhile, in England, the Labor Party had formed and had elected members to parliament. In Germany chancellor Otto von Bismarck (1815–1898) was trying to quiet the socialists by giving in to some of their demands. Social legislation was also passed in France and England and conditions in the factories improved.

In the beginning of the twentieth century, England passed social insurance policies providing old age, sickness, and accident insurance. There was also a minimum wage law and unemployment insurance. If Marx had still been alive, he might have seen these successes as cause to alter his ideology. As things stood, Western Europe was moving away from revolutionary Marxism and concentrating on long–term reform. English Fabian Socialism (socialism based on slow change rather than revolution) overtook Marxism in its popularity because of its adherence to gradual social reform. There was skepticism surrounding Marxism, and after Engels' death in 1895 there was no one left to defend its creation with equal authority.

The German Experience

In Germany, the Marxist Social Democratic party kept growing. The socialists there were dedicated to Marxism but they had trouble relating Marxist ideas to the already improving conditions under capitalism. Marxists split into two groups, the Orthodox Marxists and the Revisionists.

Karl Kautsky (1854–1938) was a leader of the Orthodox Marxists. He edited the New Times (Neue Zeit), a publication of the German Social Democratic party. He agreed with Marx's economic arguments and centered on the problems with the lives of the working class. He felt that class struggle was evident because of the impossibility of an agreement between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. He ignored the idea of revolution, however, and argued that the working class could gain control peacefully.

Eduard Bernstein (1850–1932) wanted to update Marxism to address the improved conditions of the working class. He was a founder of Revisionism and he led the party in its abolition of the call for revolution. Bernstein claimed that the crisis inherent in capitalistic systems would become less frequent as capitalism developed and industry consolidated.

The Orthodox Marxists argued that the proletariat would revolt. They thought the workers would take control of the government, rather than overthrow it as Marx had dictated. They used peaceful methods to explain Marxism to the bourgeoisie to meet some of their goals. The Revisionists argued that Marxism was outdated. Both parties condemned violence and even the Orthodox Marxists were a muted version of what was envisioned by Karl Marx.

World War I brought more challenges to Marxism. A radical wing of the German Social Democratic party criticized the democracy used by the Orthodox and the Revisionist parties. Rosa Luxemburg (1870–1919) was unhappy with what the parties had done to Marxism. Luxemburg changed Marx's ideas, stretching them to include a theory of imperialism. She looked at the European colonialization from an economic standpoint and argued that colonialization was necessary for capitalistic countries to increase their markets. Without new markets they could not progress and if they could not progress, they would not reach socialism. She felt that when the available markets had been saturated, capitalism would collapse and socialism would sweep up the debris.

Luxemburg believed in Marxism's class struggle theory. She fought for revolution and encouraged workers to strike and stifle whatever they could as practice for the final revolution that would overturn capitalism forever.

The defenders of Marxism were a loose selection of socialist groups that convened in congresses every three years. Marxism had been one of the competing socialist doctrines of the First International and the most respected during the Second International in 1889. The International reaffirmed the Marxist's doctrines of class struggle and revolution. When World War I broke out in 1914, the socialist sector splintered and Marxism's influence declined in Western Europe. At the same time, however, the Marxist Vladimir Lenin (1870–1924) was leading a revolt in Russia.

Marxism in Russia

Marx had dismissed Russia as being too backward to deal with, much as he had dismissed the peasants as being too backward to take control. In 1917 Tsar Nicholas II was ousted and a Provisional Government was put in his place. Soon after that, the Bolsheviks and Marxist-Leninists took over the government. Lenin began to mold Marxism to his methods. He kept Marx's ideas of revolution and, for the first time, began to implement Marxist ideology.

Lenin had to bend Marxism quite a bit to fit it into Russia. Lenin understood that in Russia the working class was too small to revolt on its own. He gathered the support of the peasantry by turning the land over to the peasants and was rewarded with their support. He talked about common interests and he altered the nature of Marxist revolution. While Marx had felt that revolution would be spontaneous, Lenin felt that the workers only wanted to improve their working conditions and their wages and that this was not enough to create a revolution. He felt that they needed to be led by revolutionaries who would take control, and he felt that the proletariat would not be equipped to handle the power if they got it on their own through revolution.

Marx had described a proletariat dictatorship as a government directly created after revolution with the purpose of bringing in a communist society. Lenin called his beliefs Marxism and considered himself a Marxist despite his alterations. Lenin felt that a party–controlled government was essential to success and, once in power, he suppressed opposition and silenced objectors in the name of achieving socialism. Instead of the freedom and creativity that Marxism predicted, Lenin's reality was a repression and lack of equality that was only exaggerated by his successor, Joseph Stalin (1879–1953). Russia under Stalin could no longer be referred to as Marxist; communism, or more specifically, a harsh form later named Stalinism, took its place.


Marxism is a political theory and a means of achieving that theory. Karl Marx developed Marxism in the nineteenth century. He was unhappy with capitalism and felt a need for a new order. He drew his ideas from studies of industrial revolutions, from the ideas of the German philosopher George Hegel, from the European Enlightenment, and from a commitment to social equality and justice. Marxism is centered around the idea of social change and revolution to overthrow the capitalistic injustices heaped upon the common man. It covers three areas: philosophy, history, and economics.


Philosophically, Marxism studies the human mind. It examines the method by which man defines himself and how he decides what is real and what is not. Marx felt that ideas and practices were never fixed but were rather in a state of constant evolution based upon the surroundings at the time. He agreed with his early mentor, Hegel, who felt that change came through two opposing forces which struck each other and through their contact created a third entity. Hegel called this the "synthesis." The two opposing forces which created the synthesis were the "thesis" and the "antithesis." In time, the synthesis becomes a thesis with its own antithesis and, through a collision, creates another synthesis.

Though Hegel's notion of continual change gave Marx a framework, Marx wasn't fully satisfied with it. Hegel felt that change resulted from "world spirit," and that this spirit developed freedom. Marx felt that such vague notions made no sense. He believed that people controlled their own future. He rejected the idea that the spiritual world held importance and wanted to bring things back to earth. He applied Hegel's spiritual metaphors to the physical world, which he found much more practical, viable, and believable.

Marx also declared that philosophy had to become real. It was not enough to observe and comment on the world—one must try to change it and to make it better. Marx thought that knowledge centered around an analysis of ideas and that, without taking the next step to action, things became stymied. He looked at each problem in relation to others and then related them in turn to economic and political realities.

Marx's philosophy on the causes of revolution was unlike most prominent thinkers of his time. In the nineteenth century, major historical events such as revolution were usually explained in terms of great and dynamic leaders or religious figures. Marx sought to explain revolution in economic terms. He stated that when technological improvements are made in society, the power structure impedes that technology from being used in the best way. In the case of capitalism, Marx thought that its rules of private property ownership would stand in the way of the developing technology that was greatly increasing the production of goods and services.

This theory did have a historical precedent—during the Middle Ages, when technological progress in society was a leading factor in the demise of feudalism and the birth of capitalism. Centuries later, the advancements of the Industrial Revolution would lead, according to Marx, to the only possible outcome: the destruction of capitalism by violent revolution. As Today's Isms states: "Marx could find no instance in history in which a major social and economic system freely abdicated to its successor. On the assumption that the future will resemble the past, the communists, as the Communist Manifesto says, 'openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions.' This is a crucial tenet of Marxism–Leninism, and one that clearly distinguishes it from democracy."


Marxism also examines history. It explains that history is a series of conflicts and arrangements of social arenas. Labor helps to define the social groups. The way in which people labor with the tools available and the groups in which they operate are what defines the different sections of history. Marx labels five historical chapters in the way labor is conducted: the slave state, feudalism, capitalism, socialism, and finally, Marxism. He argues that capitalism exploits the workers in the same way that the slave state does and, for this reason, cannot last. The inequalities of capitalism will lead to revolution to equalize resources. Socialism will ensue, and after the wrinkles are ironed out of socialism, Marxism will replace it.

Marx felt that history could only be explained in terms of what people had done in, and to, the material world. The pattern was the same as Hegel's thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. Continual conflict created new items to create new conflict, and so on.

Marx also said that every society had a "superstructure." This structure was comprised of the religious beliefs, laws and customs, and the political institutions and ideas. The superstructure protected the upper classes more than the lower. Religion, for example, would teach the poor that it was a virtue to live in poverty and to concentrate on the afterlife rather than on the life being lived at the moment. The poor would therefore not have a good reason to object to their condition, given the explanation of its worth.

Marx talked at length about this class struggle and the barriers it created. He felt that change was inevitable, and that the lower class would eventually reach a breaking point at which they would revolt to improve their condition.

It was this sort of class struggle, according to Marx, that would bring societal change. Mankind has traveled through history this way, from the phases of slavery to feudalism to capitalism. When farming took over hunting and gathering, a more distinct superstructure was necessary. When feudalism followed slavery, serfs with their increased freedom created a new class, the bourgeoisie. Eventually, this group overthrew the feudal lords and capitalism swept in.


Marxism's main focus is economics. Marx's program for man begins with satisfying one's needs. Men need to satisfy certain needs such as food and shelter. Their means of achieving this are a struggle with nature. Hunting and building disturb nature. Through this disruption, man finds himself human because of his own labor. At the same time, he appreciates his mastery of nature. Born in nature, man becomes human, ironically, by fighting nature. Marx contends that all of history is the struggle between man and nature through his labor. Man is self–sufficient and free only when he manipulates the nature that created him.

Capitalism, Marx believed, stole freedom. Marx dissects capitalism to explain its inadequacies. A laborer is paid for the work he does, for example, but is paid an amount to allow him to support his family rather than an amount based on the profit he has given his employer. The laborer is separated, alienated, from his product. This destroys his freedom. The capitalists profit enormously, according to Marx, while the workers make a subsistence living regardless of the worth of their creations. Workers are not paid according to their value, and this injustice will lead to dissatisfaction and the collapse of capitalism. Since there is a lack of freedom, capitalism is not a viable long–term option.

The workers are a class of their own, the proletariat, while the owners of production are a higher class, the capitalists. There is middle class, the bourgeoisie, who don't labor in the same way as the proletariat but rather organize the labor and work from offices to direct and manage the factories. Marxism dictates that the struggle between the capitalists and the proletariat will end in socialism. Socialism will be the synthesis of the thesis and antithesis of the proletariat and the capitalist.

The most important thing about any society, Marx said, is the way in which it provides for itself. Its economic means, for example, could include hunting and gathering or factories and grocery stores. Marx called these methods a society's modes of production. The modes of production could be very simple or infinitely complicated, depending on the society. The means of production were the tools the society used to satisfy its needs, such as knives and spears or machinery and computers.

The relations of production were the owners of the means of production. The capitalists, the village chiefs, the monarchs, or the elders could be the relations of production. The relations of production were either owned by society as a whole or were privately owned by individuals. Marx felt that private property allowed inequality and provided a way to create different classes—a small upper–class that had almost everything and a large lower class with virtually nothing to sustain itself.

Marxism identifies "alienation" as a central problem with capitalism. Since labor isn't directly related to its value, it is alienated labor. The worker is also alienated from himself because he is selling his labor and has become a commodity. He is further alienated by specialization. His task becomes so minute that he can perform it very quickly which speeds up production, but his expertise is so limited that he is virtually useless. Adam Smith (1723–1790), the "father of capitalism," argued that such specialization, though marvelous for capitalists, rendered the worker worthless in any real measure. The worker is then alienated from his humanness. It is this alienation, in addition to exploitation of the workers by the capitalists, which form the contradictions that will disband capitalism.

Marx goes on to say that private property becomes a principal means of alienating oneself. It is this private ownership that separates one from the collective and creates individual existences separate from the whole.

The economic alienation is coupled with a political alienation. The capitalistic society of the bourgeoisie is separated into economics and politics. Marx viewed the political arena as the vessel for separating the classes and for allowing one class to dominate the next.

The market Marx analyzed the market system in depth in his Das Kapital. He studied the economy wholly rather than in parts. His ideas center on the belief that economic value comes directly from human labor. Marx felt that capitalism would develop to include more and more contradictions. The inequality of the laborer's pay versus the capitalist's profit was the first contradiction. In addition, technology invites trouble. A machine will allow a capitalist to produce more at a lower cost, but competition keeps him from realizing more gain. He must keep up with the latest machinery to remain competitive, which means transferring money once designated for workers and applying them to technology instead. As a result, his rate of profit declines.

The market will also be shaken by crisis periodically. This instability creates increasing poverty, as people are not able to keep up with the fluctuating market. The separation of the proletariat and the capitalists increases and the classes are even more distinct. The monetary assets are controlled by fewer and fewer people and what remains is shared by more and more.

Class struggle Marx also explains how the worker's position will lead to revolution. One thing the working class will gain is knowledge about group activity. The factory workers learn to work cooperatively and will eventually see that they can channel this cooperative effort into a movement to better their condition. This is what Marx calls class consciousness. The realization of one's condition will lead to a greater understanding and, in turn, to conflict between the classes. Pressures build and the workers begin to demand change.

Marx spoke at great length about this class struggle, which is the focal point of his social evolution. When man is conscious of his alienation, he will move toward revolution. This will be the beginning of communism. There are two forms of revolution for Marx. The first is a standard uprising of the proletariat after having been exploited past their breaking point. The second type of revolution is more permanent—a provisional merger between proletariat and bourgeoisie rebelling, together, against capitalism. Later on, when there is a proletariat majority to the coalition, power is transferred completely to the proletariat. It was this revolution that would bring capitalism to an end and allow socialism and, finally, Marxism, to take its place. After the establishment of a Marxist economy, class structure would disappear from society.

Engels' View

Friedrich Engels, Marx's friend and the co–author of The Communist Manifesto, added his comments to Marx's capitalism critique. Engels felt that man's mentality could be its own prison. Ideologies allowed people to understand themselves and where they fit into the puzzle. These ideas masked the true picture, their exploitation. Ideologically, for example, the capitalist will give the workers the impression that he is working in their best interest. The workers will feel that, though they are paid small sums, they are appreciated and cared for. But in reality, the capitalist will simply be spouting words to boost morale and encourage loyalty, so that he can continue to get as much labor from his workers as possible, and for the lowest price. According to Engels, workers focus on the ways in which they are not exploited rather than on all the ways in which they are.


Friedrich Engels

Friedrich Engels was born on November 28, 1820, in the Rhine province of Prussia (Germany). He was a friend and colleague of Karl Marx and the co–author of the Communist Manifesto, which became the bible of the Communist Party.

Engels grew up in a liberal family of Protestants loyal to Prussia. His father owned a textile factory in Bremen and expected Engels to be a part of the family business. Because of this, Engels led a double life.

When Engels was 18 he began work with his father. During working hours, Engels was an apprentice and an athlete. He also studied language. After hours, however, he read revolutionary works and became interested in the Young Hegelians, leftists following the ideas of the philosopher George Hegel, who asserted that progress and change come from opposing views that, when they clash, form a new ideology. The Young Hegelians were trying to accelerate the process by denouncing all things they found oppressive.

In 1841, Engels returned to Bremen and enlisted in an artillery regiment in Berlin. He frequented university lectures, though he wasn't enrolled, and the articles he'd written got him accepted into the Young Hegelian group of "The Free." After he finished his service a year later, Engels met Moses Hess. It was Hess who sparked his interest in communism, explaining that the consequence of the Hegelian idea was communism.

In 1842 Engels went to Manchester, England, to help with his father's partnership in a cotton plant. He continued to live his double life, writing communist articles after hours and meeting radical personalities.

Engels laid out an early form of scientific socialism in two articles he wrote for the "German–French Yearbooks." He found contradictions in liberal economics and felt that private property ownership created a chasm between the rich and the poor. By then Engels had begun to collaborate with Karl Marx, whom he'd met in France. Their first joint work was The German Ideology, which denounced those who didn't support revolution. Marx had formed a notion, which Engels endorsed, of history which ended, necessarily, in communism.

The Communist League held its first congress in 1847. At the second congress, Marx and Engels drafted the communist principles to which the League would subscribe. This Communist Manifesto became the bible to the Communist League.

Though Marx was the central creator of Marxism, Engels was his specialist on questions of the military, international affairs, science, nationality, and economics. It was Engels who sold Das Kapital with his review of the book. When Marx died in 1883, Engels became the central Marxist figure. He finished volumes two and three of Das Kapital from Marx's notes and manuscripts.

Engels developed cancer and died at the age of 75 in 1895 in London, England. With Marx, he helped to create Marxism and to shape the communist views that would later be used (and abused) by Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin in Soviet Russia.

In addition to the Marxism drawn out by Mark and Engels, there is Soviet Marxism. It is debatable as to whether or not the version of Marxism practiced by Vladimir Lenin in Russia was still true Marxism or whether it was so distorted that it became something else entirely.


When Marx and Engels died at the end of the nineteenth century, Marxism's evolution was inherited by the revolutionaries of the next generation. In Western Europe at that time, conditions improved for factory workers. Economic prosperity meant improved living standards across the board. Workers formed unions and were able to negotiate better working conditions and earnings. Many European countries were becoming more democratic, moving away from Marxism, and were prospering.

In Western Europe the people felt satisfied and, rather than jeopardizing what they'd gained by having a revolution, they worked to gradually improve their conditions. Marxism fizzled into smaller groups of intellectuals who, in order to gain any support at all, stressed reform in place of revolution.

When the Second International was formed as the latest communist entity, it was an international organization of socialist parties. Its members slowly lost their revolutionary spirit in favor of long–term reform. Democratic socialist writer Eduard Bernstein said that capitalism was making life better, not worse. He pointed out that violent struggles between the classes was not the best way to create change. Capitalism would gradually evolve into socialism, he said. His ideas were called revisionism and were considered an updated version of Marxism. The Second International went along with his ideas.

While Marxism was shrinking away in Western Europe, it was spreading into Russia and gaining momentum. Much of Russia's population was poor. The majority were peasants who had been liberated from serfdom and slavery by Tsar Alexander II (1818– 1881) in 1861 but who lived in the same conditions they had before their freedom. Though Russia was also going through an industrial revolution, it was far behind Europe. To make matters worse, the tsar had almost complete power over his people. There was a huge class difference between the minute elite and the uneducated mass peasant population. The groups didn't interact at all. Ironically, most of the revolutionaries were from the elite class and knew little of the life of the people for whom they were concerned.

Das Kapital was translated into Russian in the 1870s (ironically, the tsarist censors didn't think it would be read because of its difficult style). The first Russian Marxist group, The Liberation of Labor, was formed in 1883. The Russian Marxists were a small minority and the majority of the socialists didn't subscribe to Marx's call for world revolution.

Marxism Under Lenin

Vladimir Lenin was born in 1870. He grew up in a middle class family and had a happy childhood. During his adolescence, however, two significant things happened that helped lead him down the road to professional revolutionary. When Lenin was 16 his father, a schoolteacher, died of a stroke; the following year his brother was hanged for being involved in a revolutionary plot to kill the tsar.

Lenin was expelled from the university he was attending for participated in a student protest. Studying from home he learned about revolutionary leaders and read Das Kapital. Lenin became one of the most important leaders of Russian Marxism and spent the next 17 years helping the communists gather momentum. He became a Marxist in the 1890s, taking some of his ideas from Marxism and combining them with Russian revolutionary tradition. His version of Marxism is commonly known as Leninism or Marxism–Leninism.

Lenin's ideas Lenin did not agree with Marx's assumption that a society must pass through capitalism before it reaches socialism. Lenin desperately wanted socialism. He did not want to wait for Russia to go through capitalism—he wanted change to happen quickly, so he organized a political party. In keeping with Russian socialist tradition, Lenin distrusted the masses. The masses, at the time, wanted the Marxist party to be modeled after the German Social Democratic Party. Lenin, however, felt that the party workers would be happy with minor changes and would ignore the need for revolution. They would not reach "revolutionary consciousness," Lenin said. He organized his ideas in a pamphlet published in 1902 called What Is to Be Done? named in honor of a book written by Nicholas Chernyshevsky (1828–1889), a Russian revolutionary.

Lenin felt that a group of professional revolutionaries should be in control of the revolution. This group would make the decisions instead of the proletariat. Decisions would be made by the leaders, the central committee. Policy could be debated but when a decision was reached, it was to be followed. In addition, Lenin's party was to be kept secret to avoid censorship by the government.

This party model was also taken from Chernyshevsky's book. Many of the Marxists in Russia did not agree with Lenin's party ideas and thought that the central committee would become a dictatorship. This argument led to a split in the Russian Social Democratic Party the next year. The two sections were called the Bolsheviks (the majority) led by Lenin, and the Mensheviks (the minority). Leon Trotsky (1879–1940), a young revolutionary who grew to enormous power in the party, criticized Lenin's ideas. He said that Lenin's party would substitute itself for the proletariat, the central committee would substitute itself for the party, and the dictator who took control would substitute himself for the central committee. Many years later, Trotsky ignored his own words and became a Bolshevik, helping to bring them to power.

Lenin also changed another aspect of Marxism. Marxist analysis predicted that the first countries to overthrow their governments and their capitalistic economies would be the most economically advanced, by definition of having to first evolve through capitalism. That meant that Western Europe would have to do it first, given its relative economic success. Lenin didn't see any evidence of revolutionary ideology in the West and therefore couldn't accept Marx's prediction. Lenin argued that when Marx wrote Das Kapital, capitalism had not yet become worldwide. Since Marx's death, capitalism had swept the planet and had led to exploitation of Asia and Africa. Lenin called this exploitation "imperialism." He said that imperialism had good points and bad points. One bad point was that the socialist revolution would be put off in the capitalist countries because they were able to boost the living conditions of their proletariat from the goods they'd exploited from Africa and Asia. One good point was that the capitalist–imperialist system had an Achilles' heel. Russia's capitalism was much less steady and could, therefore, be the first to collapse— a direct reversal of Marxist theory. This revolution would then spread in reverse order from Marx's theory, going from the lesser advanced countries to the more advanced.

Lenin felt that his revolutionaries should use any means necessary to overthrow capitalist Russia. Before the Bolsheviks seized control in 1917, Lenin endorsed extortion, fraud, robbery, and other crimes. After he came to power he seemed willing to do anything to keep it. This belief allowed him to commit heinous acts of cruelty to try to create a society that would put an end to such cruelty forever.

Revolution in 1905 Until 1904, the Marxist leaders and Russian revolutionaries remained in exile and were unable to unseat the tsar. In 1904, Russia went to war with Japan. The tsar, Nicholas II, thought it would be easy to defeat the Japanese, but the war proved to be disastrous. Conditions worsened in Russia. There was a revolution in 1905, which began with peaceful demonstrations but ended in massacre by the tsar's troops. As the revolution spread to the Russian capital of Moscow, Lenin returned to Russia from Europe to lead the Bolsheviks, and Leon Trotsky led a strike against the government.

After the failed revolt, Lenin was forced into exile from 1907 until 1917 and, from a distance, struggled to keep the Bolsheviks united. To this end he organized the Bolshevik Party Conference in Prague in 1912, which officially separated the Mensheviks from the Bolsheviks.

Through their experiences, the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks learned separate lessons. The Mensheviks decided that the proletariat was too small for a revolution and that capitalism had to mature before the proletariat would be in the majority. The Bolsheviks felt that waiting for capitalism to mature was a waste of time. Lenin looked for ways to increase the proletariat's numbers. He decided to try to ally the peasantry with the proletariat. The peasantry wouldn't hold any decision–making power, but their numbers alone would be useful. Lenin decided that he could win the peasants by giving them a few of their demands. Karl Marx had argued that the peasants were a warped class, but Lenin needed them for his program to have enough support for an uprising to succeed.

Although the 1905 revolution failed, Nicholas II was pressured to make changes. He created a constitution and made some steps toward ensuring the people had civil rights, at least on paper. Russia had its first parliament, the Duma. The Duma had limited power that catered to the upper class but was a step toward democracy. The government also tried to raise the peasantry's standard of living, improve the army, create opportunities for education, and bolster the industrial revolution. However, despite the changes, the majority of the population remained very poor and the upper classes were displeased with the weak nature of the reforms.

Changes in Russia World War I began in 1914. Russia, France, and England fought against Austria–Hungary and Germany. From the onset of the fighting, Russia suffered crippling defeats. The national pride the country felt when the troops first marched off to war quickly faded. Marches and riots swept the country. Workers and soldiers turned against the tsar, and Nicholas II was forced out in March 1917. The 300–year–old Romanov Dynasty was thrown away, and a Provisional Government composed of leaders of the Duma and noblemen was swept into place.

The Provisional Government planned to create a democracy like those in the West. They wanted to promote capitalism and reform instead of revolution. The government enacted laws expanding civil rights and shortening the work day to eight hours. They freed political prisoners and planned for a national election. But it wasn't enough.


Vladimir Lenin

Vladimir Lenin was born April 10, 1870, in Simbirsk, Russia. The founder of the Russian Communist Party, also known as the Bolsheviks, he altered Marxism and formed his own brand of political theory which is commonly called Marxism–Leninism or Leninism.

Lenin was the third of six well–educated children. He was academically successful at a young age and graduated first in his class in high school. Very adept in Greek and Latin, he seemed to be on the road to becoming a professional academic. When he was 16, however, he began to rebel. Along with his siblings, he joined the revolutionary movement to improve the political and civil rights of Russia's citizens.

Lenin's father died after having been threatened by the government while Lenin was still an adolescent. Soon after his father's death, his older brother was hanged for associating with a terrorist group. These two events may have cemented Lenin's feelings against the government and paved the way for his future success as a revolutionary.

In 1887 Lenin enrolled in Kazan University to study law and Marxism. He became a Marxist in 1889 and passed his law examinations in 1891. He was a practicing lawyer from 1892 to 1893 who served peasants and artisans, helping the poor rather than the rich. He developed a hatred for the legal system's tendency to favor the wealthy and, in turn, he began to hate lawyers.

Lenin moved to St. Petersburg in 1893 and began to broaden his Marxist associations while working as a public defender. He was sent to meet Russian exiles in 1895. When he returned, he and his Marxist comrades created the Union for the Struggle for the Liberation of the Working Class to unify the Marxist factions. The Union supported the working class, strikes, helped with their education and published information on Marxism. Lenin was thrown in jail for 15 months and afterward was sent to Siberia in exile.

Upon his return to Russia in 1900, Lenin began to build support for his ideas. Marxists were a small minority and to create a revolution that would overthrow the government, Lenin needed to have a majority. Many Russians supported the Populists, who believed that Russia was in the midst of capitalism and that it needed to remain capitalistic to reach its perfection until everyone had reached a high economic level at which point socialism would naturally ensue.

Lenin disagreed, arguing that even if land was divided and properties shared it would not be socialism but rather would be a different type of capitalism. Lenin felt that Marxism was the only way to socialism. He wrote What is to be Done? in 1902, outlining the problems with capitalism and the virtues of socialism.

By 1921 Lenin had crushed all opposition parties arguing that they did not support the Soviet cause. Many of the peasants and members of the working class had become disenchanted with Lenin's government. The party became overrun with incompetence and even the agency responsible for promoting organization, run by Joseph Stalin, was very inefficient. In 1922, Stalin became the general secretary of the party and consolidated his power. Lenin was frustrated that Russia was so far from his portrait of Socialism in his State and Revolution. He fell ill that spring and never fully recovered. Lenin continued to have episodes of sickness and, though he still wrote socialist propaganda, he never returned to the leadership position. He dictated a series of articles called the "Testament" centering on his fears of instability of the government with dominating people such as Trotsky and Stalin. He died of his third stroke on January 21, 1924. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill later wrote that the Russian people's worst misfortune was Lenin's birth; their next worst, Lenin's death.

Russia was still in the war, and the Provisional Government's popularity cascaded downward. Lenin returned to Russia from exile in Europe the same year, arriving in Petrograd (formerly St. Petersburg) on April 16, 1917. Lenin was determined to overthrow the Provisional Government believing he was the only one who could lead Russia into socialism. He denounced this government as imperialistic despite its claims of democracy.

The Bolsheviks revolt By the autumn of 1917, the Bolsheviks were the majority party and Lenin decided to make his move. Though many of his supporters wanted the Provisional Government replaced by a coalition of the major parties, Lenin convinced them that a dictatorship of one party would be better. Trotsky helped Lenin to win support and, in October, Lenin's central committee voted to overthrow the government.

The Bolshevik militia, called the Red Guards, deposed the Provisional Government in the first week of November 1917, by seizing important areas in Petrograd and arresting the ministers of the Provisional Government. The takeover was easy and smooth, and much of Russia missed it entirely. In a day, with a relatively small death toll of several hundred, the Russian democratic experiment had ended. The world's first attempt at Marxism had begun, with Lenin at its helm.

The Bolsheviks initially controlled only Petrograd and the surrounding countryside, but Lenin wanted more. He did two things to increase his popularity and control. He gave Russia's farmland to the peasants to win their support, and he began negotiations to end the war. The Treaty of Brest–Litovsk, signed by Germany in 1918, gave Russia freedom from the war in exchange for territory—territory, Lenin knew, Russia would get back someday.

The next step for the Bolsheviks was to exterminate their rivals. Lenin met opposition when he fought to make Bolshevik control over the government absolute. He finally allowed a tiny minority party to have a small voice, but after a few months even that was quashed and control became entirely Bolshevik.

Newspapers that were not socialist were shut down and Lenin's secret police, the Cheka, infiltrated the population and eliminated opposition to their leadership. In 1918 the Bolsheviks got rid of the Constituent Assembly which had been elected the year before.

Lenin's repression of opposition led to civil war. The fighting lasted until 1920. Virtually everyone who was not Bolshevik, or The Reds, was fighting against them. The Whites, or anti–Bolsheviks, were supported by Britain, the United States, and France.

By using savage and bloody tactics, the Bolsheviks eventually won the civil war. They created the first concentration camps in history to house their political prisoners. The Cheka crushed worker strikes and stole food from anyone who had it, forcing peasants to give up their grain.

The Bolsheviks seized food, controlled the factories, forbid trade, forced labor, and crushed dissension. These policies killed the Russian economy but supplied the Red Army with food and supplies which was, in Lenin's view, crucial.

When the civil war ended, the Bolsheviks' power was shaky. The economy had been flattened, riots and strikes flooded the cities, and a massive famine killed 5 million people from 1921 to 1922. In response, the Bolsheviks met for their Tenth Party Congress to discuss how to bolster the economy and the Bolshevik's popularity. Lenin suggested an end to the war communism that had confiscated provisions from the peasants. He created the New Economic Policy, designed feed his starving country. It allowed farmers to sell their goods while paying the government a percentage of their profits in tax. Peasants who had lost their incentive to grow crops began to replant. After two years, the country began to feed itself again.

Trouble within the party Many of the Bolsheviks were frustrated by this provision, however, because it stank of capitalism. The war communism, which confiscated goods from the peasants and distributed them among the troops, had been a step toward socialism, and had already failed.

The New Economic Policy created another problem. According to Marxism, in order to achieve socialism the industrial revolution had to continue until it reached modernity. The economic policy didn't have the resources for this, however, and the industries controlled by the state were too inefficient to amass the profits needed to invest in technology, nor could the taxes be raised without killing the incentives for peasants to produce food. Moreover, Lenin believed the New Economic Policy would relieve the peasants' fears and ease the transition to communism.

The Bolsheviks were also in the midst of a political struggle. During the civil war the opposition to the Reds had been violently silenced leading to resentment and dissatisfaction with the Bolsheviks. At the Tenth Party Congress that accepted Lenin's New Economic Policy, the leaders of the Congress created the post of general secretary to organize the party's regime, giving the post to Joseph (Dzhugashvili) Stalin.

Lenin had not expected party corruption, as it was not in keeping with Marxism. However, the party was overrun with it during the 1920s and officials used their power to satisfy personal whims. Lenin was very worried that Stalin was involved in this corruption. Stalin used his title to acquire power and Lenin decided that Stalin should be replaced. Before he could advocate his position, however, Lenin suffered the first of his three strokes. He was confined to his bed for a year and died of his third stroke in 1924.

After Lenin died, his version of Marxism became called Leninism or Marxism–Leninism. Lenin had warped many of the ideas of Marxism to rationalize revolution in Russia and his dictatorship. His version was very different from that of Marx and Engels, and even more distant from the moderate reform sector of Marxism that had swept through Western Europe.


As with so many other political systems, Marxism in practice didn't work exactly as it did in theory. Marx and Engels assumed that corruption wouldn't be a problem under communism and that the negative vices and traits that caused such corruption were spawned from the inequality and dissatisfaction of capitalism. Since Marxism would provide for all, there would be no dissatisfaction and, therefore, no reason for criminal activity. Perhaps it is impossible to say if this would be the case, as a true Marxist state has never really been reached.

There has not been a Marxist success without simultaneous abuses by those in power. Marx's ideas have been called idealistic. It is utopian, to use Marx's own word, to believe that a society can exist without a class struggle of some kind. It was unrealistic to expect that work would be done voluntarily, crime would not exist, political and religious differences would be forgotten, and everyone would live happily. One of Marxism's major failings is placing so much emphasis on economic matters while downplaying—almost dismissing—factors such as religion and ethnic pride. For example, in today's Middle East, if all economic problems were suddenly solved, it's difficult to imagine that all other problems would go away, too

Many of the details of Marxism didn't blend with one another. Marx's moral disagreement with capitalism and particularly his studies which showed communism was unavoidable don't seem to hold up when measured against modern history—Japan, Germany, and the United States have had thriving capitalist economies for decades; and yet, at the dawn of the twenty–first century, a Marxist revolution in any of the three seems almost inconceivable. Marx's contention that capitalism had to first mature to its fullest state before the inevitable communist revolution was also disproven in the reverse—Russia hardly had a thriving capitalist economy when the Bolsheviks took over in 1917.

Moreover, Marx's views on the causes of imperialism were also at odds with events that occurred long after his death. Today's Isms states: "Communist imperialism cannot be explained in Marxian economic terms, according to which imperialism is the last phase of an advanced capitalist economy with an abundance of capital that it seeks to invest in less developed areas." Indeed, modern–day Germany and Japan are two examples of capitalist governments that don't seem to have any imperical ambitions, while the cash–strapped Soviet Union of the mid–twentieth century aggressively set up communist satellite states all over Eastern Europe. Of course, by the mid–twentieth century Stalin had so twisted communist theory that Marx himself likely would've been disappointed if he had seen what the first country to base itself on his ideas had become. The truly ironic thing is if Marx had been around in the 1930s to express those disappointments in Stalin's Russia, he probably would've found himself exiled to Siberia—or worse.

Marx also believed that, after the communist revolution, the class structure of society would disappear. But that was not the case in Soviet Russia. Indeed, the proletariat fell even further behind the small class of quasi–intellectual government officials who—in the name of the state—controlled the means of production. In fact, it has been the advanced capitalist economies that showed a change for the better. Of the twentieth–century capitalist societies, Eugene O. Porter writes in Fallacies of Karl Marx: "The middle–class is not disappearing, but increasing, as a result of the greatly expanding educational system which produces professional men and women—doctors, lawyers, teachers, etc., most of whom are property owners and therefore of the petty bourgeoisie as defined by Marx."

Marx and Engels claimed that, scientifically, socialism was the only way history could end. They called this theory "scientific" socialism and considered it much more sound than the idealistic dreams of the utopians. Engels, after Marx's death, hinted that their theories may need modification, given that socialism had yet to ensue.

After Vladimir Lenin came to control Russia in 1917, his version of Marxism became known as Marxism–Leninism. He altered many of Marx's ideas to rationalize his seizure of power and the atrocities committed by his Bolshevik party. He justified the ends by the means and was willing to do anything to force socialism onto tsarist Russia.

Lenin added to Marxism the idea that a new party had to be created to control the working class. He also added the idea of Marxist revolution in one country instead of the worldwide revolution that Marx had predicted. Lenin sought control rather than leadership. His dictatorship became more severe when he encountered opposition that could force him from power. He felt compelled to silence it, and did.

The Bolsheviks changed their name to the Communist Party in 1918 to distinguish their revolutionary selves from the moderate Marxists in Western Europe. The Communist International, set up by the Bolsheviks in 1919, was separate from the Second International's organization of socialist parties. Lenin wanted only revolutionary socialism and so created the Communist International to allow for a split.

Marxism–Leninism, signified socialist ideology in tandem with mass murder. Lenin voiced some comments on Marxism that shed light on some of the causes of its struggle in Russia. In his 1923 speech, "Better Fewer, But Better," Lenin spoke about some of the areas in which his Marxism had strayed from the vision recorded by Karl Marx.

Lenin's speech, by title and content, included the idea that rule was better controlled by a small, competent minority than by the masses. This was a direct split from Marx's contention that the revolutionary party would succeed because of its control by the masses, or the proletariat (the working class.) Lenin's statement, "We must follow the rule: Better fewer, but better," was a switch from the Marxist ideals he planned to follow.

Lenin also felt that it was important to progress slowly and that change that was forced quickly would eventually ring false. His simultaneous need to be able to defend his country from aggressors was an obstacle, however. The two desires could not find a way to coexist. Lenin stated: "We must show sound scepticism (sic) for too rapid progress… we must remember that we should not stint time on building it, and that it will take many many years." At the same time, Lenin felt: "What interests us is… the tactics which we, the Russian Communist Party… should pursue to prevent the West–European counter–revolutionary states from crushing us."

Lenin's own claims are that to reach a Marxist world, progress could not be rushed, yet at the same time it was imperative to have a powerful country to protect Marxist ideals. Though Lenin said that "… we shall be able to keep going not on the level of a small peasant country, not on the level of universal limitation, but on a level steadily advancing to large–scale machine industry," he wanted these conflicting goals to happen simultaneously. These plans could have led to their own failure.

Marxism was designed to be a road to equality and freedom. Society would be fair and repressive methods would be unnecessary. The Marxist reality in Russia was very different from the ideology it claimed to follow. The state did not whither into nothing but rather grew until it virtually destroyed everything else. The state controlled everything—industry, agriculture, education, art, and the media. Travel was only allowed with permission and the state spied on its citizens so that it could bury dissension.

There is some debate as to why the quest for Marxism created such blood bath in Russia. Marx believed that checks and balances, as found in the Constitution of the United States, were unnecessary. He felt that the evils of the world would disappear when equality took over because it was the poverty and need caused by capitalism that created the evils to begin with. The Russian experiment of Marxism was a failure. The freedom and equality that Marxism was created to promote were ignored. Crime flourished at the highest level: It did not melt away as Marx had predicted. Marxist theorist Rosa Luxemburg (1871– 1919), commented on the problems of freedom when she said, "Freedom only for the supporters of the government, only for the members of one party—however numerous they may be—is no freedom at all. Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently." In Soviet Russia, the ones who thought differently were quite often killed, which may help to explain why freedom was so thoroughly lacking and why, despite good intentions at the onset, Soviet Russia endured such violence in the name of so–called equality.


  • Does the evolution of Marxism end with Marx's death? With Engels' death? Can Marxists in the twentieth century alter the meaning of Marxism and still call it Marxism, or is Marxism necessarily the philosophy set down by Karl Marx?
  • Is Marxism fatally flawed in its assumption that crime will not exist with equality, or is it simply that the world has never really seen equality and thus crime has never had a chance to snuff itself out?
  • Although Marxism failed in Soviet Russia, could it succeed elsewhere?



Ebenstein, Alan, William Ebenstein, and Edwin Fogelman. Today's Isms, Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Feinberg, Barbara Silberdick. Marx and Marxism, New York: Franklin Watts, 1985.

Klages, Mary. "Marxism and Ideology," University of Colorado, Boulder, 1997.

Kort, Michael G. Marxism In Power—The Rise and Fall of a Doctrine, Connecticut: The Millbrook Press, 1993.

Laidler, Harry W. History of Socialism, New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1968.

Martin, Joseph. A Guide to Marxism, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1980.

Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich. The Communist Manifesto, New York: Verso, 1998.

Porter, Eugene O. Fallacies of Karl Marx, Texas Western College at El Paso, 1962.

Service, Robert A History of Twentieth–Century Russia, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Volkov, G.N., ed. The Basics of Marxist–Leninist Theory, Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1982.

Further Readings

Dunayevskaya. Marxism and Freedom: From 1776 Until Today, Humanity Books, 2000. Traces the history of Marxist Socialism and explains why its opposition to freedom led to its demise.

Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. The Manifesto of the Communist Party, 1848. This call to arms to the workers was written by Marx and Engels in the middle of a revolutionary upheaval throughout Europe.

Pelinka, Anton. Social Democratic Parties in Europe, New York: Praeger Publishers, Inc., 1983. Provides more information on the political background which influenced Karl Marx.

Volkov, G.N., ed. The Basics of Marxist–Leninist Theory, Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1982. Describes Marxist-Leninist theory and its relationship to capitalism.


Capitalism, Communism, Socialism, Utopianism


views updated May 17 2018





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


views updated May 29 2018



Karl Marx's three-volume study Das Kapital (1867, 1885, 1894), along with the earlier Manifest der kommunistichen Partei (The Communist Manifesto, 1848), which he co-wrote with Friedrich Engels (1820–1895), and other works, were important to the nineteenth and twentieth century's numerous class struggles and wars of national liberation. Marx (1818–1883) argued that capitalism, although responsible for technological development and some social achievements, was fundamentally defective in that it was based on profit and human exploitation. Marx believed that capitalism would necessarily become outmoded, although his writings, especially the exhortative Manifesto, expressed the conviction that communism—the public control of the means of production—would occur only through human agency, namely revolution; those who benefit from capitalism would not simply step aside and allow the system to be replaced by a system beneficial for workers, the enormous and most productive class that communism would assist. For Marx, who wanted to develop a scientific understanding of the impact of economic systems on humanity, reformism and acts of charity would do little to transform a fundamentally exploitative system such as capitalism into a more just one such as socialism.

Later Marxists such as Vladimir Lenin (1870–1924), Leon Trotsky (1879–1940), Mao Zedong (1893–1976), and Che Guevara (1928–1967) would develop programs of revolutionary action, as would numerous non-Marxists aligned with anticapitalist movements such as anarchism. After Joseph Stalin (1879–1953) established himself as dictator of the Soviet Union following Lenin's death, various Western Marxists such as Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937), György Lukács (1885–1971), Louis Althusser (1918–), Herbert Marcuse (1898–1979), Theodor Adorno (1903–1969), and Max Horkheimer (1895–1973) would rethink Marxism relative to the political issues of the twentieth century, often linking Marxism to such movements as Freudianism to bolster Marxism's radical essence and to challenge forms of social injustice beyond economic formulations of base and superstructure. By the mid-twentieth century Marxism had become connected to the defeat of racism and endorsement of gender equality and sexual liberation. Walter Benjamin (1892–1940), a member of the Frankfurt School of political and social thought, became important to film theory for his essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" (1935–1936), in which he argued that the "aura" of great works become diminished by the process of reproduction. Although this process had a democratizing aspect, it also tended to remove an artwork from its historical-political context. Benjamin followed a solidly Marxist argument that the artwork was very much conjoined to class assumptions.


Marxist ideology is anathema to the business-driven film industry of the United States, but its outlook appears in one form or other in a variety of American films. Although the US government and business sector have been adamantly opposed to all forms of socialism, notions of class struggle have appeared in cinema from its inception. Filmmakers partaking of progressive discourse tend in general to appeal to notions of charity and social equality rather than to Marxist revolution. D. W. Griffith's (1875–1948) Intolerance (1916) can be read as one long plea for social justice. One of the epic's highlights is the Jenkins Mill episode, a loose recreation of the Ludlow Massacre of 1914, during which Rockefeller financial interests hired National Guardsmen to assault and kill striking workers at a chemical plant in Colorado; this event outraged many, including conservatives such as Griffith. Early film comedy, especially the works of Charles Chaplin (1889–1977), have strong anti-authoritarian and socialist themes, from Chaplin's short farces such as Easy Street (1917), which portray in Dickensian fashion the life of the urban poor, to his feature-length spoof of industrial capitalism, Modern Times (1936).

Post–World War I European cinema, especially that of Germany, showed both the effects of the war and the alienated and helpless condition of people under the German class system. Expressionist horror films such as Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Robert Weine, 1920) conveyed a modernist sense of humanity's twisted, tormented situation under the standing economic order. Fritz Lang's pioneering science-fiction masterpiece Metropolis (1927), with its seminal vision of an ornate city resting atop the underworld city of the workers who maintain it (a notion derived from H. G. Wells's 1895 novel The Time Machine), would foreground anxieties over the class struggle that had propelled Russia's October 1917 Revolution.

Indeed, the Soviet Union after the October Revolution would produce the key films extolling the virtues of socialism and communism; these films would also become landmark contributions to the development of the cinema. Lenin, the leader of the Bolshevik revolution, saw cinema as "the most important art," a phrase often repeated in histories of film. Lenin thought that cinema's ability to communicate through images had an innately democratizing aspect, one crucial to the Soviet Union's numerous ethnicities and languages. This idea was intuited by the pioneers of the Soviet cinema, including Lev Kuleshov (1899–1970), whose famous "Kuleshov experiment" emphasized the importance of film editing by demonstrating how the interrelationship of images affected the consciousness of the spectator. The Soviet cinema for the decade following the October Revolution was among the most avant-garde in the world and established a place in artistic modernism. The key figure of the Soviet cinema, and a giant of film history, is Sergei Eisenstein (1898–1948), who fused Marxist dialectics with art movements such as Cubism and Constructivism to produce a challenging, dynamic cinema that served the agitation purposes of the Soviet revolution. His major films, especially Stachka (Strike, 1925), Bronenosets Potyomkin (Battleship Potemkin, 1925), and Oktyabr (Ten Days that Shook the World and October, 1927), broke cleanly with the static melodrama characteristic of early cinema—even the innovative films of Griffith—to create a style based on montage, or cinema built around rapidly cut sequences whose images were charged with symbolism and interacted with each other with remarkable sophistication.

Eisenstein's theory of montage became crucial to the cinema, owing its intellectual basis to Marxist dialectics. In contrast to his colleague Kuleshov, Eisenstein felt that images should "collide" rather than merely be "linked" through editing. Eisenstein applied classical dialectical thinking of thesis opposed by antithesis, leading to synthesis, borrowing from Marx the idea that the standing thesis (problem) of society was capital, its antithesis the worker, synthesis the revolution. Eisenstein translated this into an editing structure wherein the thesis is, for example, images of Czarist troops in the Odessa Steps sequence of Battleship Potemkin, the antithesis shots images of the population. The ultimate synthesis is not revolution, but rather the awakening of the spectator. Clearly Eisenstein's films, even before his famous montage theory was formulated, were focused on agitation (as is evident in Strike, his first major film).

Other important early Soviet directors included Dziga Vertov (1896–1954), whose kino pravda ("film truth") movies inspired the cinema verité movement first in France and then internationally. Vertov sought to change the style of the documentary and the notion of the real as depicted in bourgeois art. His most radical accomplishment was Chelovek s kino-apparatom (The Man With a Movie Camera, 1929), which recorded a day in the life of a Soviet city. What could have been a prosaic film was a radical departure for the documentary, embodying various forms of modernism along with the Marxist aesthetics of theorists such as Bertolt Brecht (1898–1956). Vertov used split screens, superimpositions, animation, and above all an attempt to incorporate the viewer into the very process of filmmaking by showing us the operation of the camera and including self-reflexive jokes such as an image of the filmmaker floating with his camera over the city. Vertov challenged bourgeois realism as well as conventional notions of perspective inherited from the Renaissance, which Vertov, like other Marxist artists, believed lulled the audience into a sense of self-satisfaction and consolation as it accepted the singular vision of one inspired "genius."


Other manifestations of a Marxist cinema in Europe include the work of the Spanish director Luis Buñuel (1900–1983). His early films Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog, 1929) and L'Âge d'or (The Golden Age, 1930), made in collaboration with the surrealist painter Salvador Dali (1904–1989), combined a Marxist slap at the bourgeoisie with surrealism's contempt for all social norms. Deeply affected by European fascism, Buñuel, throughout his long career, continued to lambaste bourgeois society with extraordinarily witty satires, the most notable of which include Belle de Jour (1967), Le charme discret de la bourgeoisie (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, 1972), Le Fantôme de la liberté (The Phantom of Liberty, 1974), and Cet obscur objet du désir (That Obscure Object of Desire, 1977).

Surrealism, like many art movements of the post–World War I avant-garde, had a strong if conflicted Marxist orientation. Buñuel and his old schoolmate Dali had a falling out during their collaboration on L'Age d'or: Buñuel, who at the time had strong communist sympathies, meant the film as a deliberate undermining of all bourgeois institutions. Dali, who eventually supported the Spanish fascist dictator Francisco Franco (whose rule ran from 1936 to 1973) and various figures of the European aristocracy, wanted merely to cause a scandal through the use of various scatological and anti-Catholic images. André Breton (1896–1966), the author of the 1946 work Manifestoes of Surrealism and the movement's leading theoretician, visited Trotsky in Mexico during the Bolshevik leader's exile in the late 1930s from the Stalin-controlled Soviet Union. During that visit Breton had a brief association with Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and other Mexican avant-garde painters. Breton's concern was to place surrealism as a movement in service of revolutionary action by creating works that would transform bourgeois consciousness. Yet many aspects of Breton were conservative and exclusionary, especially on the subjects of gender and the rendering of sexuality. Breton did not hesitate to "expel" surrealists whose works he deemed effete or gratuitously sexual.

Jean Renoir (1894–1979), perhaps the greatest figure of the French cinema, was a member of the French Communist Party, then a supporter of the Popular Front coalition of various leftist factions. He examined prewar French society from a sophisticated left perspective. His most acclaimed film, La Règle du Jeu (The Rules of the Game, 1939), offers a class critique in depicting the deceptions and self-deceptions of a marquis, his wife, and their circle of friends, servants, and hangers-on. The film, influenced by Pierre-Augustin Beaumarchais's The Marriage of Figaro (1784), presents a decaying bourgeois civilization in microcosm, showing how the facade and cavalier appetites of this society reflect the dominant assumptions that bring about both the horrors of war and the taken-for-granted forms of repression and denial that are the substance of capitalist life. In the 1930s Renoir directed films regarded by many to be his most self-consciously political, including Boudu sauvé des eaux (Boudu Saved from Drowning, 1932), about a derelict who disrupts a bourgeois household, and Le Crime de Monsieur Lange (The Crime of Monsieur Lange, 1936), in which a collectively owned comic book company becomes an allegory of communist society and its internal and external opposition.

The German filmmaker Max Ophuls (1902–1957), who worked in Germany, France, Italy, and the United States, is one of the first directors to introduce the ideas of the Marxist playwright and aesthetician Bertolt Brecht to the cinema. Ophuls, like Renoir, took as his subject the examination of bourgeois mores, especially assumptions pertaining to gender relations (which he saw as foundational to economic and all other relations). He used a high degree of camera artifice both to engage the audience and focus it, in the manner of Brecht's theories, on ideas rather than the melodramatic content of his films, from Liebelei (Flirtation, 1933) and La Signora di Tutti (Everybody's Woman, 1934) to La Ronde (Roundabout, 1950), Madame de … (The Earrings of Madame de …, 1953) and Lola Montès (1955), and even his American films. The Reckless Moment (1949) is a deceptively simple but comprehensive analysis of American postwar bourgeois society, especially its impact on the female. Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948) is one of the cinema's most perceptive meditations on gender relations under patriarchal capitalism, exemplifying the fusion of psychoanalysis and feminism with Marxism in artistic discourse.

Bertolt Brecht, the distinguished Marxist playwright and theorist, was influential on a host of left-oriented filmmakers beyond Ophuls. Brecht's notion of "distanciation," the idea that the illusionist tricks of the filmmaker or theater director should be revealed to the audience so that it might become fully engaged with the assumptions of the author, would influence a generation of artists on various continents. The cleverly anti-bourgeois Hollywood melodramas of Douglas Sirk (1897–1987), especially All that Heaven Allows (1954) and Written on the Wind (1956), show the Brechtian influence on the expatriated German director through his deliberately artificial-looking color and set design. The French New Wave filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard (b. 1930) is Brechtian through most of his films in the 1960s and early 1970s, which invite the spectator to interrogate the conventions and codes of representational cinema.

In the postwar period the Italian cinema became noticeable for its strongly progressive, leftist sentiment as Italy became so strong a center of European communism that it was targeted for disruption by the US government. The neorealist movement represented by directors Vittorio De Sica (1902–1974) and Roberto Rossellini (1906–1977) (both of whom were Christian and humanist in their orientation—their works were nevertheless embraced by much of the left) became the most influential style of the period, with its focus on the plight of the poor. De Sica's Ladri di biciclette (The Bicycle Thieves, 1948) is representative. Luchino Visconti (1906–1976), whose career began within the neorealist style, made La Terra Trema (The Earth Trembles, 1948), about the hardships of a Sicilian fisherman and his family, with funds from the Italian Communist Party. Visconti, an aristocrat with Marxist convictions, applied his analysis of class to two early1960s masterpieces, Rocco e i suoi fratelli (Rocco and His Brothers, 1960) and Il Gattopardo (The Leopard, 1963). His later films, La Caduta degli dei (The Damned, 1969) and Morte a Venezia (Death in Venice, 1971), focused on the decadence and irredeemable nature of the bourgeoisie. The Damned drew a connection between industrial capitalism and the rise of fascism. Visconti's work was strongly influenced by Lukács, the Marxist literary theorist, who argued against avant-garde modernism, which he saw as metaphysical and obscurantist in nature, and in favor of realism, for the portrayal of class conflict in art. Visconti's "Lukacsian epics" stick close to the conventions of the nineteenth-century novel, with attention to material reality through period detail to portray the aristocracy and bourgeoisie in various states of decline.

Bernardo Bertolucci (b. 1940) was, until the 1980s, another identifiably political Italian director, whose best-remembered films were very much influenced by the political activity of the 1960s in Europe and the United States. From his first feature, Before the Revolution (1964), his films display nostalgia for the old order simultaneous with its denunciation. The disintegration of macho masculinity in the face of a (potentially) revolutionary Europe was central to Ultimo tango a Parigi (Last Tango in Paris, 1972), Bertolucci's most controversial film, rated "X" in the United States for its rather explicit sex acts and portrayal of sexual relations. Bertolucci's epic 1900 (1976), a portrayal of the rise of Italian communism and the struggle of the peasantry against the aristocracy, may be his defining political statement, after which he gradually abandoned many of his radical convictions.

Gillo Pontecorvo (b. 1919) is among the most prolific and committed of the Italian Marxist directors of the 1960s, his most stunning film being the Italian-Algerian co-production La Battaglia di Algeri (The Battle of Algiers, 1966), a documentary-like recreation of the Algerian revolt against French colonial occupation. A subsequent film, Queimada (Burn!, 1968), which gained brief notoriety in the United States because of Marlon Brando's starring role, is a meditation on imperialism in its colonial and neocolonial phases.

France's most radical filmmaker of the 1960s and 1970s is without question Jean-Luc Godard, the central figure of the French New Wave, who combined Brechtian aesthetics with a love of American genre cinema to challenge traditional representational practices and their ideological underpinnings. A writer for the influential French film journal Cahiers du Cinéma, Godard was among the critics who championed a reevaluation of the American cinema. Le Mépris (Contempt, 1963) is Godard's Brechtian reflection on the film industry, for which he had both nostalgic sentiment and considerable revulsion. Les Carabiniers (The Carabineers, 1963) is Godard's radical condemnation of warfare and imperialism. His most political, antirealist gesture appeared in Weekend (1967), an apocalyptic agit-prop collage of events suggesting the decline of capitalist society into barbarism. After the events of May 1968, Godard, by then a committed Maoist, along with Jean-Pierre Gorin (b. 1943), formed the Dziga Vertov Group, a loose filmmaker cooperative that rejected all forms of conventional representation and hierarchal film practices. Le Vent d'est (Wind from the East, 1970) was the group's anti-Western, a Maoist parable tied to the genre in part through the presence of Gian Maria Volonte (1933–1994), a leading figure of the Italian Communist Party who made an international reputation as the star of Italian Westerns. Tout va bien (All's Well, 1972) is Godard and Gorin's exploration, done in non-narrative, declamatory style, of events in post-1968 France through a satiric portrayal of a strike in a sausage factory. Although termed Maoist, Tout va bien, like other Godard–Gorin films, owed more to Brecht and the early Soviet avant-garde than the socialist-realist works of Maoist China. The film's companion piece, Letter to Jane (1972), is composed of one still of the radicalized actress Jane Fonda (featured in Tout va bien), her star image and radical posture deconstructed in a voice-over analysis. Since the 1970s, Godard's radical politics have greatly receded, his recent films, such as Notre Musique (Our Music, 2004), concerned with issues of representation and human conflict, but from a humanist rather than Marxist perspective.

A key filmmaker of the 1960s Marxist tradition is Jean-Marie Straub (b. 1933), who worked for much of his career in Germany. With his wife and colleague Danièle Huillet (b. 1936), Straub created a Marxist aesthetic far closer to minimalism and structural-materialist film than the montage aesthetic of Eisenstein and the Soviet avant-garde. In fact, Straub sought to do away with montage altogether along with most forms of representationalism as he made films composed almost exclusively of prolonged static shots so as to engage the spectator with the material phenomenon of the image, as well as with their own experience of watching the screen. Among the more famous Straub–Huillet films are Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach (The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, 1968) and Moses und Aron (Moses andAaron, 1975). Straub's films were and are infuriating even to committed radicals because of their extremely slow, nonnarrative style and apparently apolitical content—Godard was upset with The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach for its refusal to engage with the events of the late 1960s, although Straub responded that the film was his contribution to the people of Vietnam in support of their struggle against the United States invasion.

b. Bologna, Italy, 5 March 1922, d. 2 November 1975

Pier Paolo Pasolini is among the most challenging and important directors of the postwar European Marxist cinema. A prolific poet and essayist, Pasolini was sometimes confusing in his ideological convictions. His open homosexuality and support of the Vatican's views on abortion caused his expulsion from the Italian Communist Party. His belief in a progressive reading of Christianity motivated his reverential, multicultural film about the life of Jesus, Il Vangelo secondo Matteo (The Gospel According to Saint Matthew, 1964). Yet his Marxism was caustic, complex but uncompromised.

Accattone (The Scrounger, 1961) is Pasolini's tribute to neorealism, with its grim story of a young homeless man begging for money in an urban slum. Edipo Re (Oedipus Rex, 1967) updates Sophocles's play with a framing device featuring a young soldier's jealous rivalry with an infant boy, making concrete Freud's ideas about the structures of power within the male group. Teorema (Theorem, 1968) breaks entirely with neorealism in its story—often seen as a radical Shane (1953)—of an angelic young stranger who arrives in a bourgeois household, the mere presence of his androgynous countenance tearing the family to bits, suggesting Pasolini's view of the fragility of heterosexual capitalist life. Porcile (Pigsty, 1969) is a neo-Brechtian film combining a story about a young barbarian in a medieval wasteland with an inter-cut narrative about the machinations of fascist industrialists determining the fate of a perverse son from their palatial neoclassical chateau.

Pasolini's "celebration of life" films, Il Decameron (The Decameron, 1971), I Racconti di Canterbury (The Canterbury Tales, 1972), and Il Fiore delle mille e una notte (Arabian Nights, 1974), exemplified his belief, common to postwar Marxism, in fusing sexual liberation to class struggle, as well as his insistence on narrative experimentation. His final film, Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma (Salo, or The 120 Days of Sodom, 1975), is one of the most controversial works in cinema history. The film recreates the four protagonists of the Marquis de Sade's novel as representatives of the church and state under fascism. They stage an orgy at Mussolini's final outpost in northern Italy, during which they subject a group of captured young people to all manner of sexual degradation, torture, and murder. The film has no specific basis in historical events but is Pasolini's meditation on the psychology of the fascist mind. Through this exploration of sexual libertinage, Pasolini questions the relative sexual freedom of the present world and whether any authentic liberation can exist in a society based on consumerism and exploitation.

Pasolini was brutally murdered on a highway in 1975, ostensibly by a gay hustler, although the case remains open as of this writing. His work remains a milestone for radical cinema. With Godard, he set a standard for innovative, critical uses of Marxism in art.


Accattone (The Scrounger, 1961), Il Vangelo secondo Matteo (The Gospel According to Saint Matthew, 1964), Uccellacci e uccellini (The Hawks and the Sparrows, 1966), Edipo Re (Oedipus Rex, 1967), Teorema (Theorem), 1968, Porcile (Pigpen, 1969), Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma (Salo, or The 120 Days of Sodom, 1975)


Greene, Naomi. Pier Paolo Pasolini: Cinema as Heresy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990.

Indiana, Gary. Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom. London: British Film Institute, 2000.

Schwartz, Barth David. Pasolini Requiem. New York: Vintage, 1995.

Stack, Oswald. Pasolini on Pasolini: Interviews with Oswald Stack. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1969.

Willemen, Paul, ed. Pier Paolo Pasolini. London: British Film Institute, 1977.

Christopher Sharrett

Constantin Costa-Gavras (b. 1933) might be seen as a crossover figure in the international leftist cinema, working in the United States and France as well as his native Greece. Costa-Gavras made an impression with his 1968 film Z, about a coup in Greece that brought a military dictatorship in the 1960s. Z resonates with various events of the 1960s, including the assassination of John F. Kennedy. His 1982 film Missing was a fictionalized account of the 1972 United States–sponsored coup against Chilean president Salvador Allende and its consequences on a meek American businessman and his family. Since the 1980s Costa-Gavras's political commitments and artistic achievements have been inconsistent.


Marxist and other radical ideologies tended to find their way into the United States cinema following the devastating impact of the Great Depression of the 1930s on American capitalism. Some films embraced a point of view reflecting merely the liberal social policies and outlook of President Franklin Roosevelt (1933–1945), whose New Deal defined the social worldview of several generations. Liberalism, designed to co-opt and diffuse a rising tide of Marxist and socialist activity in the United States during the 1930s, appeared in the films of conservative directors, including John Ford's The Grapes of Wrath (1939), and the various populist films of the less reactionary Frank Capra (1897–1991), such as Meet John Doe (1941) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). Films such as Our Daily Bread (King Vidor, 1934) celebrated the collectivist spirit that accompanied phases of the New Deal and seemed to invoke the stylistics of the Soviet cinema.

World War II caused Hollywood to take complex political turns. Because the Soviet Union was allied with the United States in fighting Nazism, the film industry, working with the Office of War Information, made films that burnished Stalin's image and even helped justify his purges of many of the original supporters of the October Revolution. The most famous and rather bizarre example is Mission to Moscow (Michael Curtiz, 1943), about the globetrotting of Ambassador Joseph Davies that becomes a paean to Stalin as ally. After World War II, the Hollywood studios would renounce such films while helping the government condemn various directors, screenwriters, and producers as part of an international communist plot. In the climate of the Cold War, members of the film community were called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, which aimed to root out suspected communists but also to roll back the pro-union, prosocialist activity of the Great Depression as well as delegitimate Roosevelt's progressive social programs. A "blacklist" was created to purge communists and "fellow travelers" from the cinema. The most notorious phase of this process was the case of the Hollywood Ten, a group of writers and directors including Ring Lardner Jr. (1915–2000), Alvah Bessie (1904–1985), John Howard Lawson (1894–1977), Herbert Biberman (1900–1971), Dalton Trumbo (1905–1976), Albert Maltz (1908–1985), Samuel Ornitz (1890–1957), Edward Dmytrk (1908–1999), Adrian Scott (1912–1973), and Lester Cole (1904–1985), who were sent to prison for refusing to tell HUAC their political sympathies or to "name names" of suspected communists within the industry. Dmytrk and others cooperated with HUAC when released from prison and were therefore allowed to return to work. Others were kept on the blacklist and forced either out of or to the margins of the industry. HUAC activity continued well into the 1950s, gaining new momentum with the activity of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, a late-coming opportunist to the anti-left crusade.

By the late 1950s the hold of the Cold War on Hollywood tended to loosen somewhat with the censuring and early death, in 1957, of McCarthy, and the attempt by high-profile stars and producers to break the blacklist. Kirk Douglas hired Dalton Trumbo to write the screenplay for his epic Spartacus (1960); at approximately the same time, Otto Preminger hired Trumbo to write Exodus (1960). Some of the blacklisted filmmakers worked on low-profile projects that received little distribution in their day, such as Herbert Biberman's Salt of the Earth (1954), with a screenplay by Michael Wilson (1914–1978; also blacklisted—he would write Lawrence of Arabia [1962] but did not gain screen credit for it until years after the film's release), produced by Paul Jarrico (1915–1997), another victim of the witch hunt. Salt of the Earth, which recreates a strike by white and Hispanic mine workers in New Mexico, cannot be termed Marxist since it does not challenge the mine owners' right to control resources; but the film has powerful left sentiments and is rather pioneering in its views of race and gender liberation as necessary to class struggle.

American cinema in the postwar period, though rarely explicitly Marxist, often contained powerful condemnations of the intellectual and spiritual bankruptcy of the bourgeois life extolled by 1950s conservatism. Sirk's melodramas are perceptive comments, made by a European émigré observing the scene, on the limits of American middle- and upper-class life, with its social and economic contradictions and forms of repression. The melodrama is, in fact, the filmic site that seems to show, in the context of the 1950s, deep skepticism toward the American ideological program of restoring a sense of normality shattered by the Great Depression. Picnic (Joshua Logan, 1955), Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray, 1955), Bigger than Life (Ray, 1956), Some Came Running (Vincente Minnelli, 1958), Home from the Hill (Minnelli, 1960), and Strangers When We Meet (Richard Quine, 1960) are all stunning rebukes of American patriarchal bourgeois civilization. Even the Western, Hollywood's traditionally conservative genre, showed the cracks in the postwar ideological facade in films such as High Noon (Fred Zinneman, 1952) and Man of theWest (Anthony Mann, 1958). Rather like the films of Renoir, Buñuel, and Pasolini, these films and later works of Hollywood seem less involved in offering a revolutionary solution than diagnosing the maladies of life under the capitalist social order.


The cinema of Latin America, Asia, and Africa has produced what many critics argue to be the most radical cinema, despite often meager production resources of the overexploited nations interested in participating in cinematic discourse about Western imperialism. Many Third World films of a radical orientation enjoy little if any distribution within the United States; as a consequence, the work of Marxist directors from Latin America or Africa are often lost to all but the most diligent radical scholars. A key example of the problem is Hora de los hornos (The Hour of the Furnaces, 1967), by the Argentine director Fernando Solanas (b. 1936), with Octavio Getino (b. 1935) and Santiago Alvarez (1919–1998), one of the most radical condemnations, in agitprop form, of American and European imperialism ever filmed, which has yet to appear in the United States in a serviceable video or DVD version. The Cuban filmmaker Santiago Alvarez is perhaps the most renowned documentarian working in a communist country. His rather modest, often satirical agitprop films, such as LBJ (1968), and the tributes to Che Guevara and Ho Chi Minh, Hasta la victoria siempre (Until the Victory Always, 1967), and 79 primaveras (79 Springs, 1969), are remarkable works partaking fully of the avant-garde tradition in their satirical montage, their caustic condemnation of imperialism, and their celebration of the international struggle for liberation. Another Cuban filmmaker, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea (1928–1996), offers a sophisticated meditation on liberalism and its hypocritical equivocations in Memorias del subdesarrollo (Memories of Underdevelopment, 1968).

Africa's most renowned radical director is perhaps the Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembene (b. 1923), whose films offer sublime, understated challenges to Western imperialism in a career spanning almost forty years. His Emitai (God of Thunder, 1971) is representative of his project of reclaiming African identity as it forces the Western viewer to understand her or his own imagination, and the ways by which this imagination has been projected on Africa. Concerned with the French occupation of Senegal during World War II and a resultant massacre, the film is among the most important postwar challenges by an African filmmaker. Sembene's film Xala (The Curse, 1975) deconstructs the colonialist mindset as internalized by the colonized—as such, Xala is a kind of cinema reflection on the essential thesis of Frantz Fanon's pivotal 1961 study The Wretched of the Earth. Guelwaar (1992) is an especially relevant comment on conflicts between the Muslim and Christian worlds in contemporary Africa, as it foregrounds the ongoing struggle for freedom from colonialism.

In the Middle East, Iran at the beginning of the twenty-first century seems to have the strongest potential for the production of a radical cinema despite its theocratic government. Dariush Mehrjui (b. 1939) appears an heir to Buñuel in such films as Baanoo (The Lady, 1999) and Dayereh mina (The Cycle, 1978). The prolific filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami (b. 1940) has enjoyed much acclaim in recent years for his largely humanist films.


During the Vietnam War, which by the late 1960s brought a major wave of dissent in the United States, the Hollywood cinema tended to portray a society on the verge of disintegration: Arthur Penn's The Chase (1965) and Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider (1969), and Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (1969). Penn's Alice's Restaurant (1969) showed sympathy for the youth counterculture of the 1960s. During the 1970s audiences that had witnessed the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal were drawn to disaster films such as Earthquake and The Towering Inferno (1974), whose pleasures resided in watching the destruction of symbols of mainstream society. In the horror genre, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and Dawn of the Dead (1978) portrayed the monstrousness of post-Vietnam America. Several films examined the war and its consequences, the most famous of which are The Deer Hunter (1978) and Apocalypse Now (1979). In the late 1980s, Oliver Stone (b. 1946) made two films about the war, Platoon (1986) and Born on the Fourth of July (1989), showing the coming-apart of American myth and the social confidence that permitted the war to occur. A common critical view of Marxist film scholars is that few if any Vietnam films examine the role of imperialism and colonialism in shaping war policy.

The Hollywood cinema from the 1960s until the presidency of Ronald Reagan (1981–1989) tended to offer challenges to the American ideological system that sometimes had obvious Marxist aspects. This was due in part to the collapse of the studio system, the rise of independent cinema, and the American crisis in ideological confidence. The tendencies of this new cinema may be best represented in Heaven's Gate (Michael Cimino, 1980), an epic rethinking of the Western that saw the winning of the West as class struggle. A new, corporatized studio system developed in the 1980s and 1990s, and adversarial cinema saw a gradual demise simultaneous with the public embrace of the status quo following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Still, challenges to the political-economic-social order, sometimes of a limited or compromised nature, occasionally appear in the commercial cinema of the new century, including, among others, the films of Todd Haynes, David O. Russell's Three Kings (1997), and David Fincher's Fight Club (1999).

SEE ALSO Class;Ideology;Russia and Soviet Union


Eisenstein, Sergei. Film Essays and a Lecture. Edited by Jay Leyda. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1982.

——. Film Form: Essays in Film Theory. Edited and translated by Jay Leyda. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1949.

——. The Film Sense. Translated and edited by Jay Leyda. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1975.

Jameson, Fredric. Signatures of the Visible. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Jezer, Marty. The Dark Ages: Life in the United States 1945–1960. Boston: South End Press, 1980.

MacBean, James Roy. Film and Revolution. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1975.

Ryan, Michael, and Douglas Kellner. Camera Politica: The Politics and Ideology of Contemporary Hollywood Film. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988.

Sklar, Robert. Movie-Made America: A Social History of American Film. New York: Random House, 1975.

Solomon, Maynard, ed. Marxism and Art. New York: Knopf, 1973.

Vertov, Dziga. Kino-Eye: The Writings of Dziga Vertov. Edited by Annette Michelson, translated by Kevin O'Brien. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.

Vogel, Amos. Film as a Subversive Art. New York: Random House, 1972.

Wood, Robin. Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan and Beyond. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004.

Christopher Sharrett

Marxist Sociology

views updated May 17 2018


The concept of a Marxist sociology does not refer to a clearly defined approach to social research; indeed, it is "now employed so widely that it has begun to lose all meaning" (Abercrombie et al. 1988, p. 148). The ambiguity of the term stems from the multiplicity of interpretations of the work of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, whose approach to social theory is usually termed historical materialism. The most well-known version is that of Soviet communism (Marxism-Leninism) and is identified with the worldview of dialectical materialism (a term never used by Marx and Engels), which has served largely the interests of Soviet ideology. The influence of historical materialism in modern sociology, however, stems primarily from the lesser-known independent tradition of European "Western Marxism" and the resulting forms of Marxist sociology (Agger 1979).

Contemporary usage of the term Marxist sociology varies considerably. In the United States, for example, the term Marxist is often used rather loosely, to designate virtually any type of radical or critical approach influenced by Marxian concepts (e.g., Ollman and Vernoff 1982; Flacks 1982). In societies with more strongly developed social democratic labor movements, as in Europe, the term is more closely identified with communist parties. Given the inherent ambiguity of the term, it is therefore useful to define Marxist sociology rather narrowly and concretely as a specific form of conflict theory associated with Western Marxism's objective of developing a positive (empirical) science of capitalist society as part of the mobilization of a revolutionary working class.

It is also useful to distinguish three basic types of relations between sociologists and Marxist sociology: those who work directly within the Marxist tradition (Marxist sociology proper) but "incorporate sociological insights, findings, and methodologies"; those who are Marxist-influenced in the sense of being stimulated by its historical approach and the "big questions" Marxists have posed but remain indifferent to "whether the best explanatory answers turn out to be Marxist" (Burawoy and Skocpol 1982, p. vii); and those identifying with highly revisionist critical theories (sometimes still in the name of Marxism) that seek to preserve the emancipatory vision of the Marxist tradition despite abandonment of the conventional notion of working-class revolution (Held 1980; Kellner 1989). It should also be stressed that Marxist sociology in this first sense refers to a historically identifiable—but widely contested—interpretation of the sociological implications of Marx's approach. As the most well-known British Marxist sociologist has concluded with particular reference to the German Frankfurt tradition of critical theory: "The tasks of a Marxist sociology, as I conceive it, are therefore very different from those of a neo-critical theory of society" (Bottomore 1984, p. 81). Marxist sociology in this strict sense thus tends in its most rigid form to resist any eclectic appropriation of sociological concepts: "Marxism has been courted by virtually every conceivable non-Marxist ideology: by existentialism, phenomenology, critical academic sociology, and by several variants of theology. To raise the question of a Marxism of Marxism is to take a resolute standagainst all attempts to capture and exploit Marx for non-Marxist purposes; and to adopt as a guiding principle . . . the claim that Marx himself made for his work: that Marxism is a specific science, related to the working class as a guide to socialist revolution" (Therborn 1976, p. 40).

The distinction between Marxism as "science" and as "critique" provides another way of describing the aspirations of Marxist sociology, which most commonly seeks to develop an objective, political economic science of society rather than a critical philosophy of praxis (Bottomore 1975; Gouldner 1980). Such a project is inherently inter-disciplinary and often referred to under the heading of political economy, a term designating Marxistoriented research that may be carried out in various disciplines: economics, political science, and history, as well as sociology (Attewell 1984). Though those identifying with neo-Weberian conflict or critical theories accept many of the empirical findings of neo-Marxist sociology and political economy, they tend to disagree about their broader interpretation and relation to political practice and social change.


All forms of Marxist sociology trace themselves to the general theoretical approach of historical materialism as developed by Marx and Engels (Marx and Engels 1978; Bottomore and Goode 1983; Bottomore et al. 1983). Standard accounts of Marx's theoretical program stress that it does not constitute a unified system so much as diverse, though interrelated, modes of theorizing.

  • Early writings that outline a theory of philosophical critique, an analysis of alienated labor, and a normative vision of human emancipation;
  • A general sociology in the form of historical materialism (i.e., a theory of modes of production) as an approach to historical evolution;
  • A specific account of capitalism and its economic contradictions deriving from this general theory; and
  • A political philosophy and theory of praxis concerned with translating objective crisis tendencies in capitalism into a revolutionary transformation that would bring about a new form of "socialist" and eventually "communist" society (Giddens 1971, pp. 1–64; Bottomore 1975).

The precise relationship among these areas remains controversial. Though each level of theorizing has sociological implications, Marxist sociology has drawn primarily from the general sociology suggested by historical materialism and the more historically specific analysis of capitalist development that is the empirical focus of Marx's social theory and historical sociology. The key concept of a mode of production serves as the comparative framework for analyzing different social formations in terms of the contradictory relationship between their forces of production (primarily technology) and relations of production (forms of work organization and exploitation). The resulting mode of production directly shapes the specific structures of the class system and the manner in which the economic base determines the cultural superstructure composed of the state and various ideological institutions such as the mass media, education, law, religion, political ideologies, and so forth. In capitalist societies the contradiction deriving from the unresolvable polarization between labor and capital becomes the basis for revolutionary change under conditions of economic crisis.

As a positive science of society, Marxist sociology emerged in the period following Marx's death in 1883 through World War I. Strongly influenced by Engels's conception of "scientific socialism" as elaborated by Karl Kautsky in Germany, it was institutionalized in German Social Democracy and the Second International. Particular stress was placed upon how this approach provided an account of the historical "laws" that explained the causes of changes in modes of production and class formation and struggle. According to these laws a transition to socialism could be deduced from the "necessary" breakdown of capitalism. Extensive further development of such a scientific socialism was carried out by the Austro-Marxists, who deepened the logical analysis of Marxism as a form of causal explanation by drawing upon contemporary debates in the philosophy of science; as well, they extended Marx's theory to new phenomena such as the analysis of nationalism and the ethical foundations of Marxist sociology (Bottomore 1975, 1978; Bottomore and Goode 1978).

These two traditions of scientific socialism, however, did not develop much beyond the level codified in Bukharin's textbook of 1921 (Historical Materialism: A System of Sociology, translated in 1925). The primary reason was that there was considerable resistance to Marxism in the academy (related in part to identification of Marxism with the Soviet Union), ignorance of the richness of the suppressed tradition of Western Marxism, and a broad post–World War II institutionalization of sociology that virtually excluded Marxist sociology, despite some marginal influences of research in social stratification and change (e.g., Ralf Dahrhendorf in West Germany and C. Wright Mills in the United States). For all practical purposes the resurgence of Marxist sociology (often identified as "political economy" as opposed to "critical theory") coincides with the parallel emergence of radical and critical theories in the late 1960s, along with the recovery of the deeper foundations of Marxian theory with the proliferation of translations of Western Marxist texts in the 1970s.

It is customary to distinguish two basic starting points of a Marxist sociology based on different interpretations of the base–superstructure metaphor that underlies the concept of a mode of production: economistic or instrumental approaches as opposed to structuralist reproduction models. Economistic interpretations—sometimes associated with the idea of orthodox or "vulgar" Marxism—are based on a more or less reductionistic, causal account of the effects of the economic base or infrastructure upon the cultural superstructure, especially as causally derived from the assumed objective consequences of class interests.

Structuralist theories of social and cultural reproduction, in contrast, argue that the base–superstructure relation is more complex, involving functional relations that ensure the relative (if variable) autonomy of cultural factors, even if the economic is determinant in the last instance. Such structuralist interpretations derive primarily from the concept of the social reproduction of labor power developed in Marx's later works, the theory of cultural hegemony developed by the Italian Marxist leader and theorist Antonio Gramsci (1971) in the 1930s, and the reinterpretation of both Marx and Gramsci by the French philosopher Louis Althusser in the 1960s (Althusser 1971; Althusser and Balibar [1968] 1979).


The most convenient way to speak of contemporary themes in Marxist sociology—thus differentiating it from conflict or critical theory generally—is to restrict the concept to research that continues to adhere to the basic principles of neo-Marxist theory. Such a Marxist sociology would sometimes include adherence to the labor theory of value (which holds that labor is the only source of profit) but more essentially the primacy of economic and class factors, the priority of objective structures over subjectivity and consciousness, and the privileged role of the working class in a transition to socialism as defined by direct state ownership of the means of production (Anderson 1984; Wood 1986; Archibald 1978).

With respect to more recent developments in Marxist sociology, the immense literature and wide national variations make it appropriate to focus primarily—if not exclusively—on the remarkable resurgence of Marxism in American sociology. This phenomenon stems from the 1970s and has been traced to four key influences: the broadened audience of the journal Monthly Review, which was founded in 1949 and pioneered the application of Marxist economic theory for an analysis of the United States and its "imperial" role in world politics; Marxist historians who developed a critique of American liberalism and proposed a class-based reinterpretation of American history; the Hegelian Marxism and Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School tradition; and, finally, structuralist Marxism of largely French inspiration that sought to reestablish the credentials of Marx's theory as a science of society (Burawoy 1982, pp. 4–6). To illustrate the concerns of recent Marxist sociology, it is instructive to review some of the most representative examples of research in four key areas: work and the division of labor, class structure, the state and crisis theory, and culture and ideology. Research on the political economy of the world system and dependency theory have also been important but will not be discussed here (see, however, So 1990).

The Labor Process and the New International Division of Labor. Until the late 1960s, Marxist theory was associated primarily with either communist ideologies or economic theory (Sweezy [1942] 1968). Not surprisingly, the pioneering, technically sophisticated Marxist research in the United States was concerned with an economic analysis of the new form of "monopoly capitalism" (Baran and Sweezy 1966). Drawing out the sociological implications of such, political economy is most closely associated with subsequent pathbreaking work involving the rediscovery of the labor process (i.e., Braverman 1974; Burawoy 1979) that gave work the central place that had been lost with the sense of consensus in postwar labor relations (Thompson 1983; Attewell 1984, pp. 93–141). Particular attention was given to the logic of capital's need to cheapen labor costs in ways that degrade and divide workers. More recent work has attempted to emphasize the incorporation of a subjective dimension to the labor process; further, it has developed a comparative perspective through the analysis of factory regimes in different types of economic systems and in relation to the new international division of labor (e.g., Burawoy 1985).

Class. Class analysis of course remains the key aspect of any Marxist sociology, but the focus contrasts sharply with conventional sociological approaches, even those (e.g., Max Weber) that acknowledge the importance of class conflict. Marxist sociology strongly insists on the primacy of the relations of production over the market processes stressed by neo-Weberians (Grabb 1990). The most influential empirical research in this area has stressed the importance of contradictory class locations and of reconnecting the objective and subjective dimensions of class with a theory of exploitation (Grabb 1990, pp. 152–163; Wright 1978, 1985).

Recent Marxist class analysis has been confronted by a number of challenges that pose serious problems for orthodox approaches; for example, the problem of the urban question, the role of ethnicity or race and especially gender as independent sources of domination (Shaw 1985), the emergence of the middle strata and the decline of the traditional "working class" (Walker 1978), the failure of class consciousness and actions to develop in the ways required for revolutionary transition, and other issues. The relation between Marxist and feminist theory has proved most controversial. More orthodox Marxist sociologists have attempted to incorporate gender into the theory of class and modes of production through the concept of unpaid "domestic labor" that contributes to the overall process of social reproduction (Fox 1980). But many feminists have abandoned Marxist sociology precisely because of its insistence on the primacy of class at the expense of gender (and other sources of domination).

The State and Crisis Theory. The contributions of Marxist sociology to the theory of the state have been wide-ranging and influential (Carnoy 1984; Jessop 1982; Holloway and Picciotto 1978). As well, they illustrate most clearly the issues involved in the debate between instrumental and structuralist interpretations of the base–superstructure model. In the context of theories of the state, this issue takes the form of whether the dominant class controls the state directly through its elite connections or indirectly through the functional economic and political imperatives that constrain public policy, regardless of who happens to hold power in a democratic regime. For example, the so-called Miliband-Poulantzas debate sharply defined the different empirical consequences of these two approaches. Miliband ([1969] 1973) stressed the actual empirical link between economic elites and political power of the dominant class, hence the role of the state as an instrument of class rule. Poulantzas ([1968] 1978), on the other hand, analyzed the state as a factor of cohesion that requires relative autonomy in order indirectly to serve the process of social reproduction in the long run.

Another central theme of Marxist sociology has been the relationship between economic crisis tendencies and the state in advanced capitalism (Attewell 1984, pp. 142–206). Research has focused especially on the concept of the "fiscal crisis of the state" (O'Connor 1973). It has been argued that the state is caught between the contradictory pressures of ensuring capital accumulation and legitimating the negative effects of the economy with the safety nets of the welfare state and that these conflicts become the potential basis for the emergence of new class-based oppositional movements.

Culture and Ideology. The most recent flourishing area of research has been in Marxist-influenced analyses of cultural phenomena as manifestations of ideology. The central focus has been on how cultural hegemony (or domination) is formed and the types of resistance that oppressed groups may develop against it. The stress of economistic Marxism has been upon the way in which the cultural superstructure of society "reflects" or "mirrors" economic processes and class relations. This approach often resulted in crude, reductionistic political and class analyses that were often unsatisfactory to those intimately acquainted with both high and popular culture. With the emergence of more sophisticated structuralist models of cultural reproduction, however, the relative autonomy of cultural forms could be acknowledged without obscuring their origins in "material" social relations. In the more extreme form represented by structuralist Marxism, it has been more generally held that all of the cultural institutions of society (e.g., the media, family, law, arts, etc.) functioned in the last instance as "ideological state apparatuses" that served the long-term interests of capital (Althusser 1971). Research based on both instrumentalist and structuralist approaches has been applied to the range of cultural activities (e.g., art, literature, law, sport, etc.), but education and the mass media figure most prominently, and they can serve as illustrations.

In the case of the Marxist sociology of education the result was a shift from an instrumentalist perspective (i.e., the role of capitalist ideology in directly using the educational system to shape consciousness in its interests) to one based on the idea of social reproduction as an indirect form of social control. Initially, structuralist approaches put particular stress upon the formal "correspondence" between the economic base and the hegemonic superstructure, despite the autonomy of the latter. Hence, structuralist research on education attempted to demonstrate the way in which the hidden curriculum of the school "corresponded" to the type of labor required by capital (Bowles and Gintis 1977; Cole 1988). Research on the political economy of the media was more strongly represented by instrumentalist perspectives that stressed the role of the media as instruments of "mind control" on the part of the dominant class and the broader dominance of the American media globally (Schiller 1971; 1973); others argued from a more structuralist perspective that the primary function of the media is the "selling of audiences," irrespective of the specific ideological content of programming (Smythe 1981).


As a specific theoretical approach that seeks to discover the role of economic and class factors in social change, Western Marxist sociology will certainly endure, though its significance will vary with the type of social formation and topic examined. As a philosophy of history or general theory of modes of production, and more especially as part of a particular theory of working-class revolution, orthodox Marxist sociology has been seriously called into question, especially in advanced capitalism. It has already collapsed in Eastern bloc countries, where a completely new tradition of social science is in the process of formation. This is not to say that economic and class factors or Marx become irrelevant, though the broader crisis of historical materialism suggests their significance and relation to social, political, and cultural processes will have to be interpreted in more self-critical, flexible, and historically specific ways (Aronowitz 1981). The complex outcome of the crisis of Marxist sociology in advanced capitalism is suggestively anticipated in the response of three contemporary countertendencies.

So-called analytical Marxism is defined more by its methodological stance than its substantive content. It thus differentiates itself from traditional Marxism in its commitment to abstract theorizing (as opposed to more concrete historical analysis), a search for rethinking the foundations by asking heretical questions, and "using state-of-theart methods of analytical philosophy and 'positivist' social science" (Roemer 1986, pp. 1–2). Though these developments will undoubtedly have some impact on social theory, they are clearly too heterogeneous and revisionist to fall under the heading of Marxist sociology in the sense used here.

A second, opposing "poststructuralist" strategy is evident in the work of some former Marxists who have retreated from orthodox class concepts, arguing that a "post-Marxism" is required that involves eliminating the notion of the working class as a "universal class" and resurrecting a new conception of socialist democracy (Laclau and Mouffe 1985). Not surprisingly, this (partial) "retreat from class" has been treated with hostility by many neo-Marxists (Wood 1986), but it has provoked important debates about the role of new social movements and democratic processes in any defendable conception of socialist transformation.

A third tendency has been loosely referred to as "cultural Marxism." Such critics of the functionalist tendencies of structuralist Marxism put particular stress upon the contested and uneven character of cultural reproduction in capitalist societies. In particular, various researchers have pointed to how dominated groups resist cultural domination in ways that often become the basis of counterhegemonic social movements. Further, it is argued that a crucial feature of contemporary "postmodern" societies is the distinctive role of the "cultural." The result has been a flowering of cultural research often identified, especially in the British context, with the notion of "cultural studies" (e.g., the work of Raymond Williams, Richard Johnson, Stuart Hall, et al.; see Brantlinger 1990). A related tendency has been the cultural Marxist historiography of E. P. Thompson (Kaye and McClelland 1990) that has influenced a major reinterpretation of Marx as a historical sociologist (Sayer 1983; Corrigan and Sayer 1985). A distinctive aspect of the cultural Marxist tradition, an aspect that has led it away from Marxist sociology in its more restrictive sense, has been its ability actively to engage in debate with and appropriate concepts from a wide variety of non-Marxist approaches. Much of the recent work carried out in the name of cultural Marxism thus increasingly blends with poststructuralist and critical theories of culture, reflecting the circumstance that "Marxism is no longer a single coherent discursive and political practice" (Nelson and Grossberg 1988, p. 11). One consequence is that it is no longer "possible to talk unproblematically of a 'Marxist' sociology, since Marxism has become a major contributor to sociology in general, while Marxist-influenced sociologists increasingly identify with their discipline (Shaw 1985, p. 16).


By the end of the 1990s, several key shifts had redefined the fate of Marxist theory in the social sciences: (1) the collapse of the Soviet bloc; (2) a proliferation of metatheoretical debates—loosely grouped as postmodernist—that called into question the capacity of theory generally, and Marxist theory in particular, to provide general explanations or ethical critiques of social life; (3) a blurring of disciplinary boundaries that contributed to the flow of Marxist-related concepts into the humanities, especially under the heading of cultural studies; and (4) a substantive focus on globalization as a framework for rethinking the Marxian theory of society and change. The outcome of these tendencies was a decline of Marxist sociology as a clearly identifiable research orientation. Yet these developments also reinforced the three tendencies previously visible in the 1980s: (1) the continuing development of analytical Marxism (Jacobs 1996); (2) the proliferation of poststructuralist critiques of class essentialism that attempted to include standpoints such as race and gender in Marxist theory; and above all, (3) the continuing development of cultural Marxism, especially in the humanities. Many of those who continued to develop such questions had strayed so far from classical Marxist positions that they more often identified with an expanded notion of "critical theory" than with "Marxism" in the strict sense; rather than referring primarily to the Frankfurt School tradition, such an ecumenical reference to critical theory reflected a shared aspiration for a fundamental rethinking of the Marxian tradition.

The disintegration of the Soviet bloc culminating in 1989 marked the end of the failed experiment of "actually existing socialism." Though Western Marxists had generally rejected the Soviet model as an expression of Marx's utopian vision, its sudden demise came as a shock and unleashed a complex theoretical debate (Magnus and Cullenberg 1995). Western Marxists greeted this momentous historical transformation with mixed emotions. On the one hand, they were relieved to see the end of this tragic example of state socialism. On the other hand, they were perturbed by the uncritical embracing of the market model of development as the only alternative and the triumphalist heralding of these changes as the "end of Marxism." Within the ex-Soviet bloc the disillusionment with Marx was so intense that the very idea of Marxist sociology was generally repudiated; partly as a consequence the "Marxist" interpretation of these events (e.g. the important work of Michael Burawoy) has been undertaken, paradoxically, by Western Marxists (Kennedy and Galtz 1996). In Latin America, though Marx remained in influential intellectual force, political debate shifted from revolutionary rhetoric toward pragmatic questions of "democratic transition" (Castañeda 1993). Though many Marxist social scientists moved toward variants of post-Marxist critical theory in response to these events, others insisted that the collapse of these regimes did not constitute "proofs of the bankruptcy of Marxism as a tradition of social scientific practice," though conceding that "it must be reconstructed in various ways" (Wright 1996, pp. 121–122). Though Marxist sociology declined precipitously as a specific orientation in the 1990s—hence its absence from leading social theory anthologies, discussion of Marxist theory continued to flourish in a few journals, most notably the New Left Review in Britain and Rethinking Marxism in the United States. Despite sporadic attempts to defend Marxism as a science (Burawoy 1990) or "test" classic Marxist claims (e.g., Boswell and Dixon 1993; Cockshott et al. 1995; Smith 1994), the revitalization of empirical Marxist research appeared increasingly dependent upon working out the implications of major theoretical reconstructions (e.g., Postone 1993; Wright et al. 1992). Such efforts have also been influenced by "Weberian Marxism," despite the resistance of more orthodox Marxists (Gubbay 1997; Lowy 1996).

A second major shift that has contributed to the decline of Marxist sociology in the 1990s can be identified with the elusive concept of "postmodernism" and related poststructuralist tendencies. The Marxist tradition was a specific target of epistemological postmodernism which called into question all "meta-narratives" or grand theories of society and history, whether as explanations or as the basis of universalistic ethical claims. Related poststructuralist critiques of essentialism challenged Marxist theories of the working class and called for a decentered conception of the subject that acknowledged the diversity of subject positions, a theme especially central to feminist, gender, and racial research. Some Marxists simply defended classical Marxist theory against these developments, but many felt compelled to revise their positions in the direction of an "emancipatory postmodernism," a "postmodern Marxism," or a "poststructuralist materialism." In this context, various efforts were made to reconcile selective postructuralist and postmodernist arguments with a reconstructed neo-Marxist, critical theory (e.g., Best and Kellner 1997). On the one hand, such postmodernist-influenced approaches acknowledged that the fundamental cultural shifts linked to the mass media and new information technologies have profound implications for a "postmodern" society that was not foreseen by Marx. On the other, they also conceded that classic Marxist theory (though not necessarily Marx himself) relied on an inadequate, teleological philosophy of history, economic reductionism, and an essentialist conception of the working-class subject.

A third tendency that has become more clearly defined over the past decade has been the partial erosion of disciplinary boundaries and the diverse impact of Marxist theorizing on the humanities, especially under the heading of cultural studies and poststructuralist textual theories. Paradoxically, though the influence of Marxist theory declined within sociology in the 1990s, it had a continuing renaissance and diffuse effect in other disciplines, especially literary studies. Much of this work has in turn influenced cultural Marxism, as well as sociologists of culture and the media. In its most ambitious form, such neo-Marxist cultural theory has culminated in an account of postmodernity as an historical epoch (Jameson 1991). Another outcome was an expansion and revision of the canons of classical Marxian theory. Though his status as a "Marxist" has been disputed, the Soviet scholar Mikhail Bakhtin (1895–1975) was rehabilitated as a major theorist of culture whose dialogical theory of language anticipated many of the later developments in poststructuralist critiques of Marxism (Bell and Gardiner 1998). Similarly, Antonio Gramsci's cultural and linguistic writings have been reinterpreted in terms of his poststructuralist anticipations (Holub 1992).

Finally, the most sustained empirical development in the 1990s was the emergence of the problematic of globalization (and aspects of postcolonial theory) as a reference point for an historical materialist account of social change (Hoogvelt 1997; Larrain 1994). From this perspective, "postmodernism" could be read as a symptom of processes better understood from the perspective of a political economy of globalization. Hence it was argued that Marx was the pioneer of globalization theory, given his account of the ceaseless worldwide expansion of markets, a theme elaborated in Wallerstein's world-system theory. But many other Marxists have joined critical theorists in emphasizing the distinctiveness of more recent developments since World War II, especially the transformation of production processes (e.g., the shift from "Fordism" to "post-Fordism") and the impact of information technologies, resulting in changed relations between space and time (Harvey 1989). Unlike those who uncritically celebrated the advent of an "information society" and globalization as the inevitable outcomes of capitalism, such Marxists and critical theorists have pointed to the selective characteristics of this "modernization" and its inadequate vision of the alternatives (Webster 1995). The most elaborate empirical effort to describe this new "informational mode of production" in Marxist-influenced but also innovative sociological terms can be found in Manuel Castells' three-volume The Information Age (Castells 1996–1998). As against various postmodernist currents, neo-Marxist conceptions of globalization (and related variants of critical theory) are united by their political opposition to neoliberalism (or what is often referred to as neoconservatism in the United States) and an empirical concern with analyzing capitalist globalization in terms of its grave implications for marginalized groups and societies, as well as nature itself. For the most part, such researchers no longer appeal to the classic conception of working-class revolution, though they hold out hope for new social movements as the basis of constructive forms of resistance and democratic renewal. As a consequence, Marxist sociologists have increasingly moved toward positions previously staked out by the Frankfurt tradition of critical theory and related poststructuralist French developments (Morrow 1994), though often without consistently acknowledging the full implications for the "death of Marxism" as an oppositional political discourse (Fraser 1998).

(see also: Critical Theory; Macrosociology; Materialism; Socialism)


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Raymond A. Morrow

Marxist Sociology

views updated Jun 11 2018

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.]


Adler, Max 1925 Kant und der Marxismus. Berlin: Laub.

Aron, Raymond 1950 Social Structure and the Ruling Class. British Journal of Sociology 1: 1–16, 126–143.

Aron, Raymond 1960 Classe sociale, classe politique, classe dirigeante. European Journal of Sociology 1: 260–281.

Aron, Raymond 1964 La lutte de classes. Paris: Gallimard.

Barth, Hans 1945 Wahrheit und Ideologic. Zurich: Manesse.

Bukharin, Nikolai I. (1921) 1926 Historical Materialism: A System of Sociology. London: Allen & Unwin. → First published as Teoriia istoricheskogo materializma.

Croce, Benedetto (1900) 1922 Historical Materialism and the Economics of Karl Marx. London: Allen & Unwin; New York: Macmillan. → First published as Materialismo storico ed economia marxistica.

Dahrendorf, Ralf 1959 Class and Class Conflict in an Industrial Society. Stanford Univ. Press. → A greatly revised and expanded edition of a book first published in German in 1957.

Fromm, Erich (editor) 1961 Marx’s Concept of Man. New York: Ungar.

Goldmann, Lucien 1952 Sciences humaines et philosophie. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Goldmann, Lucien 1955 Le dieu caché. Paris: Gallimard.

Goldmann, Lucien 1959 Recherches dialectiques. Paris: Gallimard.

Gramsci, Antonio (1919–1937) 1959 The Modern Prince, and Other Writings. New York: International Publishers.

Gramsci, Antonio 1949 Gli intellettuali e l’organizzazione della cultura. Turin: Einaudi.

GrÜnwald, Ernst 1934 Das Problem der Soziologie des Wissens. Vienna and Leipzig: Braumüller.

Korsch, Karl (1923) 1930 Marxismus und Philosophic. 2d ed. Leipzig: Hirschfeld.

Korsch, Karl 1938 Karl Marx. London: Chapman.

Labriola, Antonio (1895–1896) 1908 Essays on the Materialistic Conception of History. Chicago: Kerr. → First published in Italian.

Lichtheim, George 1961 Marxism: An Historical and Critical Study. New York: Praeger.

Lockwood, David 1958 The Blackcoated Worker. London: Allen & Unwin.

Lockwood, David; and Goldthorpe, J. H. 1963 Affluence and the British Class Structure. Sociological Review 11: 133–163.

LÖwith, Karl (1932) 1960 Max Weber und Karl Marx. Pages 1–67 in Karl Löwith, Gesammelte Abhandlungen zur Kritik der geschichtlichen Existenz. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer.

LukÁcs, GyÖrgy (1919–1922) 1923 Geschichte und Klassenbewusstsein: Studien über marxistische Dialektik. Berlin: Malik.

LukÁcs, GyÖrgy (1920) 1963 Die Theorie des Romans: Ein geschichtsphilosophischer Versuch über die Formen der grossen Epik. 2d ed., enl. Neuwied am Rhein (Germany): Luchterhand.

LukÁcs, GyÖrgy (1935–1939) 1964 Studies in European Realism. New York: Grosset & Dunlap. → Contains essays first published in Hungarian and German. First published in English in 1950.

LukÁcs, GyÖrgy (1947) 1965 The Historical Novel. New York: Humanities. → First published in book form in Hungarian as A történelmi regény. Parts 1 and 2 first appeared in 1937 in volumes 7, 9, and 12 of Literaturnyi kritik.

Marcuse, Herbert (1941) 1955 Reason and Revolution: Hegel and the Rise of Social Theory. 2d ed. 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.

Marshall, T. H. (1934–1962) 1964 Class, Citizenship, and Social Development: Essays. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday. → A collection of articles and lectures first published in England in 1963 under the title Sociology at the Crossroads and Other Essays. A paperback edition was published in 1965.

Marx, Karl (1844) 1963 Early Writings. Translated and edited by T. B. Bottomore. London: Watts.

Marx, Karl (1844–1875) 1964 Selected Writings in Sociology and Social Philosophy. 2d ed. Edited by T. B. Bottomore and M. Rubel with a foreword by Erich Fromm. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Marx, Karl (1845) 1956 The Holy Family. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House. → First published as Die heilige Familie.

Marx, Karl (1857–1858) 1953 Grundrisse der Kritik der politischen Ökonomie. Berlin: Dietz. → Written in 1857–1858. First published posthumously by the Marx–Engels–Lenin Institute, Moscow, in 1939–1941. A partial English translation was published as Pre-capitalist Economic Formations in 1965 by International Publishers.

Marx, Karl (1859)1913 A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. Chicago: Kerr. → First published as Zur Kritik der politischen Ökonomie.

Marx, Karl; and Engels, Friedrich (1845–1846) 1939 The German Ideology. Parts 1 and 3. With an introduction by R. Pascal. New York: International Publishers. → Written in 1845–1846; first published in German in 1932.

Mehring, Franz (1893) 1953 Die Lessing-Legende: Zur Geschichte und Kritik des preussischen Despotismus und der klassischen Literatur. Berlin: Dietz.

Mills, C. Wright 1951 White Collar: The American Middle Classes. New York: Oxford Univ. Press. → A paperback edition was published in 1956.

Ossowski, Stanislaw (1957) 1963 Class Structure in the Social Consciousness. London: Routledge; New York: Free Press. → First published as Struktura klasowa w spolecznej świadomości.

Pareto, Vilfredo (1902–1903) 1965 Les systèemes socialistes. 3d ed. Paris: Droz. → Constitutes Volume 5 of Pareto’s Oeuvres complètes.

Renner, Karl (1904) 1949 The Institutions of Private Law and Their Social Functions. London: Routledge. → First published in German in Marx-Studien under the pseudonym J. Karner.

Sartre, Jean-paul 1960 Critique de la raison dialectique, précédée de question de méthode. Paris: Gallimard. → An English translation of the prefatory essay, “Question de méthode,” was published in 1963 by Knopf as Search for a Method.

TÖnnies, Ferdinand (1887) 1957 Community and Society (Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft). Translated and edited by Charles P. Loomis. East Lansing: Michigan State Univ. Press. → First published in German. A paperback edition was published in 1963 by Harper.

TÖonnies, Ferdinand 1921 Marx: Leben und Lehre. Jena (Germany): Lichtenstein.

Veblen, Thorstein (1899) 1953 The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions. Rev. ed. New York: New American Library. → A paperback edition was published in 1959.

Veblen, Thorstein 1921 The Engineers and the Price System. New York: Huebsch.

Weber, Max (1904–1905) 1930 The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Translated by Talcott Parsons, with a foreword by R. H. Tawney. London: Allen & Unwin; New York: Scribner. → See especially pages 35–92. First published in German. The 1930 edition has been reprinted frequently.

Weber, Max (1904–1917) 1949 The Methodolgy of the Social Sciences. Glencoe, III.: Free Press. → First published in German. See especially pages 50–113, “Objectivity in Social Science and Social Policy.”.

Weber, Max (1907) 1922 R. Stammlers “Überwindung” der materialistischen Geschichtsauffassung. Pages 291–359 in Max Weber, Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Wissenschaftslehre. Tübingen (Germany): Mohr.

Wiatr, Jerzy J. 1964 Political Sociology in Eastern Europe: A Trend Report and Bibliography. Current Sociology 13, no. 2.


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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.


views updated May 21 2018


An intellectual tradition and political movement initiated by Karl Marx (1818–1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820–1895), Marxism has devoted much attention and debate on matters of science, technology, and ethics. Marx and Engels themselves were particularly influenced by Darwinism and saw themselves as extending an understanding of organic evolution into human history. They believed that developments in the natural sciences of their times required elaboration of the philosophical and sociological consequences in the direction of a dialectical and historicist form of materialism. But they were critical of existing materialist currents as undialectical and existing dialectical positions as idealist. In the intellectual division of labor between Marx and Engels, Marx devoted his efforts to economics, while Engels wrote on philosophy, science, culture, morality, and gender, and entered into polemics with critics. His Dialectics of Nature, published posthumously in 1927, explores the philosophical implications of the natural sciences.

Marxism held that capitalism has played a crucial part in developing science and technology, but that only socialism could fulfill their potential and organize an equitable distribution of their benefits. For Marxism, capitalism was an inherently contradictory mode of production. It was a system based on the primacy of market forces and private ownership of the means of social production, generating a basic class division between those who own the means of production and those who own only their labor power. Although capitalism led to an unprecedented development of productive forces, rising standards of living, and advances in science and technology, it also created massive inequality, parasitism, and alienation. Capitalism was a historically necessary stage in human development, but socialism was a necessary next step. A socialist system based on the social ownership of the means of social production would create a social order based on the principle "from each according to his or her abilities, to each according to his or her needs."

Marxism pioneered the field of sociology of knowledge, including the sociology of science and technology. It has insisted that science and technology are not isolated, self-contained activities, but develop in complex interaction with a whole range of other processes: philosophical, cultural, political, and economic forces. Within this interaction, the mode of production is decisive. All existing scientific theories, technological developments, economic structures, political institutions, philosophical positions, legal codes, moral norms, sexual roles, cultural trends, aesthetic tastes, and even common sense are inextricably interrelated and determinately shaped by the dominant mode of production. Marxism thus made extraordinarily strong claims regarding the philosophical assumptions and sociohistorical basis of scientific knowledge. At the same time it put considerable emphasis on ideology, arguing against the view that science itself is neutral and that only the use or abuse of science is ideological. Yet Marxism perceived recognition of these aspects as enhancing science and not being in conflict with the rationality and credibility of science.

Developments in the USSR

There have been many twists and turns in the history of Marxism due to the impact of new scientific discoveries, technological developments, philosophical trends, and political formations. Marxists of subsequent generations got caught up in many controversies. Along with political conflicts over evolutionary versus revolutionary paths to socialism, those of the second generation took various positions on the epistemological implications of the natural sciences. Vladimir Ilyich Lenin's (1870–1924) Materialism and Empirio-Criticism (1909) is a product of the philosophical debates of that period.

After the October revolution of 1917 that gave rise to the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), Marxism came to power as the official ideology of the new Soviet state, meaning that its visionary ideas could be tested in social practice. There were fiery debates about how to do so in virtually every sphere: from strategies for industrialization and agriculture to nationalities policy about the fate of different nationalities/national cultures within the USSR, socialist morality, science policy, free love, and the future of the family.

In the early years of the revolution, the movement for proletarian culture, proletkult, led by Alexander Alexandrovich Bogdanov (1873–1928), a doctor who advocated a collectivist subjectivism in the philosophy of science, argued that the culture of the bourgeoisie—from art and literature and morality to science and technology—was saturated with class ideology and could not serve the needs of the proletariat. Proletkult required a specifically proletarian culture, including proletarian science, because science had been shaped by the capitalist mode of production and needed to be collectivized and revolutionalized, putting an end to the fragmentation of scientific knowledge and the competitive drive of capitalist production. For Proletkult socialism was impossible without science, but it was also impossible with bourgeois science. Lenin and others took issue with this argument, contending that it was premature and sectarian to sweep aside the existing intelligentsia and existing knowledge. Lenin insisted that it was necessary to embrace bourgeois science and knowledge while critically reconstructing it. Bogdanov's movement dissipated within a few years, especially after he, as director of the Institute for Research in Blood Transfusion, died in an experiment on himself.

Nevertheless the USSR put much emphasis on working out a distinctive approach to science and technology under the banner of Marxism. Many political and philosophical debates flourished through the 1920s. The relationship of philosophy to the empirical sciences was very much in play through the prolonged debate between those who were grounded in the empirical sciences and emphasized the materialist aspect of dialectical materialism and those who were more grounded in the history of philosophy, particularly Hegel, and emphasized the dialectical dimension of dialectical materialism. It has been an ongoing tension in the history of Marxism, playing itself out in the intellectual ferment and institutional transformation of a socialist revolution. Philosophy was considered to be integral to the social order. Political leaders, particularly Lenin and Nikolai Ivanovich Bukharin (1888–1938), participated in philosophical debates as if these issues were matters of life and death, of light and darkness. Even while preoccupied with urgent affairs of state, they polemicized passionately on questions of epistemology, ontology, ethics, and aesthetics.

Bukharin was an advocate of the new economic policy aimed at achieving agricultural productivity and steady industrialization, but was outmaneuvered and defeated by Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin (1879–1953). Although he had fallen from the heights of political power, he continued to work as constructively as possible and devoted himself particularly to the application of science to economic planning during the first five-year plan. Bukharin believed that Marxists should study the most advanced work in the natural and social sciences and cleanse their thinking of the lingering idealism inherent in quasimystical Hegelian formulations. In Historical Materialism (1921), used as a basic text in educational institutions, he interpreted dialectics in terms of conflict and equilibrium. Other Marxists, such as the Italian Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937) and the Hungarian Georg Lukacs (1885–1971), saw Bukharin as the personification of a positivist tendency in Marxism. Lukacs's book History and Class Consciousness, rejecting Engels's concept of the dialectics of nature, drew a storm of controversy.

In 1931 Bukharin led a Soviet delegation to the Second International Congress of History of Science in London, projecting enormous enthusiasm for the role of science in a socialist society. Boris Mikhailovich Hessen (1883–c. 1937) delivered one of the most influential papers ever in the historiography of science, giving an ideological analysis of Newton's Principia, setting it firmly within the social, political, and economic struggles of the seventeenth century.

Both Hessen and Bukharin perished in the purges. Bukharin was the most prominent defendant in the spectacular Moscow trials and was executed. Even during his imprisonment he continued to write of how Marxism forged the most progressive path for science and technology, as affirmed in his posthumous work Philosophical Arabesques (2005), which was discovered decades after his death.

Another Marxist intellectual who espoused ideas relevant to science and technology was Leon Trotsky (1879–1940). He was inclined to the mechanist position in the debates of the 1920s and saw the role of philosophy as systematizing the conclusions of all the positive sciences. After Lenin's death in 1924 Stalin also outmaneuvered Trotsky, rejecting his pursuit of a worldwide socialist revolution in favor of developing socialism in the Soviet Union. Dismissing him from the government and expelling him from the party, in 1929 Stalin forced Trotsky into exile where he was assassinated.

Beyond and Within the USSR

The intellectual energy and social purpose of the Soviet philosophers and scientists had great impact on their international audience, especially in Britain, where influential scientists, such as J. D. Bernal (1901–1971), J. B. S. Haldane (1892–1964), and Joseph Needham (1900–1995) took up the challenge of a sociohistorical analysis of science and put their energies into a movement for social responsibility in science.

Marxism captured the imagination of many intellectuals in the west in the 1930s. Some of the most brilliant, such as David Guest (1911–1938) and Christopher Caudwell (1907–1937), died in the Spanish Civil War. In The Crisis in Physics (1939), Caudwell extended his ideological analysis of all spheres of thought into physics, seemingly the area most remote from ideological involvement. Caudwell saw a causal connection between the crisis in physics and those in biology, psychology, economics, morality, politics, art, and, indeed, life as a whole. The cause of the crisis in physics was not only the discrepancy between macroscopic or relativity physics and quantum or subatomic physics, but the deeper problem was the metaphysics of physics. What it came down to was the lack of an integrated worldview that could encompass all the sciences with their dramatically expanding experimental results. Science was decomposing into a chaos of highly specialized, mutually repellent sciences, whose growing separation increasingly impoverished each of them and contributed to the overall fragmentation of human thought. Ironically the very development of each of the sciences in this situation accentuated the general disorientation and resulted in scientists falling back on eclecticism, reductionism, positivism, and even mysticism.

Back in the USSR, a number of those who were fervent advocates of the new social order being created there were accused of undermining it and perished. All the debates of the 1920s took a sharp turn from 1929 on with the frenzy of the first five-year plan and the intensified pressure to bolshevize every institution and discipline. The intelligentsia was told that the time for ideological neutrality was over. They had to declare themselves for Marxism and for the dialectical materialist reconstruction of their disciplines or evacuate the territory. All controversies, whether between Marxism and other intellectual trends or between different trends within Marxism, were sharply closed down through the 1930s. There was to be one correct line on every question. Any deviation was considered to be not only mistaken but treacherous.

There was resistance in many areas. Geneticists fought back against attempts by brash bolshevizers to override the process of scientific discovery. The protracted struggle over the theories of Trofim Denisovich Lysenko (1898–1976) took the debate over proletarian science into difficult and dangerous territory, making legitimate issues such as hereditarianism versus environmentalism into a struggle for power where all intellectual and ethical criteria were at times abandoned. Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov (1887–1943), an internationally prominent geneticist and ardent advocate of the unity of science and socialism, defended genetics and resisted the onslaught of Lysenkoism. He was accused of sabotage of agriculture and died in a prison camp.

These developments in Soviet intellectual life were inextricably tied to the rhythms of Soviet political and economic life. The way forward with the first five-year plan was far from smooth and uncomplicated. There was violent resistance to the collectivization of agriculture and peasants were burning crops and slaughtering livestock rather than surrender. There was one disaster after another in the push to industrialization. There was a fundamental contradiction between the advanced goals that were to be achieved and the level of expertise in science, engineering, agronomy, and economics, indeed a general cultural level, needed to achieve them. There was panic and confusion and desperation. There was reckless scapegoating. Breakdowns, fires, famine, and unfulfilled targets were attributed to sabotage and espionage. There was a blurring of the lines between bungling and wrecking, between association with defeated positions and treason, between contact with foreign colleagues and conspiracy with foreign powers.

After the death of Stalin, subsequent Soviet leaders, particularly Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev (1894–1971), in the critique of Stalinism after the Twentieth Party Congress (1956), and Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev (b. 1931), in the period of glasnost and perestroika (1985–1991), attempted to put Soviet life, including its science, on a new basis, but, some contend, the traumas of the period prevented such changes.

Outside the USSR: New Left Marxism

From the 1940s on, Marxism came into the ascendancy in the academies of much of Eastern Europe and parts of Asia, Africa, and Latin America following the succession of communist or socialist parties to power in such countries as Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, China, Mozambique, and Cuba. The academicians of the German Democratic Republic were particularly devoted to developing a philosophy of science in the sense of elucidating the philosophical implications of the natural sciences.

Marxism also played a special role in French intellectual life. Some Marxist scientists, such as the physicist Paul Langevin (1872–1946) and biologist Marcel Prenant (1893–1983) saw dialectical materialism as illuminating their sciences and looked to the Soviet Union as developing science in a way that would liberate human society. Georges Freidmann (1902–1977), however, who made original contributions to industrial sociology, came to think that Soviet science was drowning in facile formulas and sterile polemics. Later many French Marxists, such as Jean Paul Sartre (1905–1980) and Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908–1961) adapted their Marxism to existentialism or phenomenology. Others such as Louis Althusser (1918–1990) took Marxism in the direction of structuralism. It emphasized scientificity, but did not engage meaningfully with actual science.

In the 1960s and 1970s the influence of Marxism again became a formidable force, not only in countries defining themselves as socialist, but in the most prototypically capitalist ones as well. Although it never took state power in these milieus, Marxism did seize the intellectual and moral initiative for a time.

During this period a new left arose, posing new questions to the old left, as well as to the old right and the ever shifting center. Eurocommunism represented a merging of old and new left currents, which promised much at the time. The most vibrant debates of the day were conducted within the arena of Marxism. There were many journals such as Science and Society (1936–), Marxism Today (1953–1991), Socialist Register (1964–), and New Left Review (1960–) in which the discussion flourished.

On all matters touching on science, technology, and ethics, there was a new left challenge. The new left view of science represented a sharp break from the old left, for example the older radical science movement in Britain, exemplified by such figures as Bernal and Haldane. Science, as the older left saw it, was a progressive force. It was essential to socialism and socialism was essential to science. The Radical Science Journal (1974–1983) took the Marxist emphasis on the ideological nature of science in the direction of a radical social constructivism that sometimes tended to reject the cognitive and liberating potential of science. A long-standing leftist position, characterized by a blending of neo-Kantian, neo-Hegelian, and, more recently, postmodernist ideas with Marxist ideas, is represented by the Frankfurt School's (1923–) critical social theory, which identifies science with bourgeois ideology, counterposes scientific with humanistic values, and tends to hostility toward the whole sphere of the natural sciences. The divisions of the left on the question of science flared up in the science wars of the 1990s and were dramatized by the controversy that arose between the journal Social Text and Alan Sokal in 1996.

From the mid-nineteenth century and continuing into the early twenty-first century, Marxism made major contributions to intellectual history. It may at times seem to be a discarded theory, but one would be mistaken in believing that Marxism might not surge again.


SEE ALSO Class;Communism;Conservatism;Critical Social Theory;Marx, Karl;Socialism;Weil, Simone.


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Bukharin, Nikolai I. (2005). Philosophical Arabesques. New York: New York University Press.

Caudwell, Christopher. (1939). The Crisis in Physics. London: John Lane.

Engels, Friedrich. (1940). Dialectics of Nature. London: Lawrence and Wishart.

Graham, Loren R. (1987). Science, Philosophy, and Human Behavior in the Soviet Union. New York: Columbia University Press.

Haldane, J. B. S. (1938). The Marxist Philosophy and the Sciences. London: University of Birmingham.

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

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Rose, Hilary, and Steven Rose, eds. (1976). The Radicalisation of Science: Ideology of/in the Natural Sciences. London: Macmillan.

Sheehan, Helena. (1993 [1985]). Marxism and the Philosophy of Science: A Critical History. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press.

Timpanaro, Sebastiano. (1975). On Materialism, trans. Lawrence Garner. London: New Left Books.


views updated May 14 2018

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.


views updated Jun 27 2018


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.


views updated Jun 11 2018


The era of the Great Depression saw the rejuvenation of Marxism as a legitimate article of political faith, but also the emergence of Marxist theory as an intellectual and even academic endeavor for the first time. The predictions of Marxism seemed, throughout the decade, to have been legitimated by the severity of economic decline and the scant prospects for capitalist revival, and intellectuals as well as many workers, including pockets of African Americans along with immigrants and the children of immigrants, were drawn toward various parts of the Left. During the early Depression years, movements of unemployed workers and campus antiwar activities were among the most dramatic manifestations, yielding to struggles for industrial unionism. The Socialist and Communist parties held onto only a small fraction of those who moved in and around their extended circles; but they (especially the Communists, from 1935 onward) were able to exert influence far beyond their numbers by providing a framework and talented activists.

An acute section of the generation of intellectuals coming of age during the 1920s and early 1930s plunged into organizing activities on broad fronts, trained themselves or were trained in college classes or leftwing academies, and even studied the Marxist classics while preparing to write films. But creative approaches had only begun in various theoretical areas when the era came crashing to an end. War approached and future repression lay dead ahead.

Ideas about Marxism in the United States before the 1930s had been primitive at best, mainly diluted reiterations of European views since the 1870s. Communist emphasis on theory was negated by the drift toward rigidity and the virtual exclusion of competing views from circulation. The first (non-Yiddish) Marxist journal of note, The Marxist Quarterly, quickly dissolved over political differences, and a successor of sorts, Science and Society, survived only by adapting to shifting Communist moods.

Yet, on a practical level, assorted adaptations of Marxism rapidly became extraordinarily useful in many ways. The Communist International's shift to the Popular Front in 1935 legitimated positive approaches to American historic themes, and the burst of creativity that spread from radical theater to Works Progress Administration arts programs, modern dance, and even Hollywood inspired thousands of the nation's most energetic young artists and intellectuals. The rash of dramatic strikes in 1934 and the subsequent rise of industrial unionism seemed to lend further credence to the central Marxist notion of working-class self-realization.

These successful uses of Marxist ideas brought a small handful of intellectual classics. W. E. B. Du-Bois's Black Reconstruction (1935) stands foremost, but several other works can also be counted as having fairly predicted the trends of Marxist thought to follow, including Sidney Hook's Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx (1933), an early exploration of the master's theoretical background; Granville Hicks's The Great Tradition: An Interpretation of American Literature since the Civil War (1933); and arguably the first edition of John Howard Lawson's classic Theory and Technique of Playwriting (1936). The selected proceedings of the League of American Writers and Congress of American Artists, as well as the pages of better-remembered and lessremembered journals, respectively, the Partisan Review and New Theater, contain much fascinating and highly creative discussion.

Marxism had not entered the mainstream of intellectual life in the United States as it had in many other societies. But its influences could be surprisingly subtle, as it was in the shrinking but still considerable world of Yiddish culture, or within immigrant working-class groups from Eastern or Southern Europe and from Puerto Rico. Marxism had entered the wide world of arts and criticism, not only at upper levels but most importantly at the levels of popular presentation, theater and film to music (both folk and jazz) and murals. In a society where "politics" remained suspect and popular culture substituted for political discussion, this counted greatly. Marxism deeply influenced many of the Depression era's most important artists and intellectuals, including Dashiell Hammett, Dorothy Parker, Clifford Odets, Woody Guthrie, Aaron Copland, and DuBois. It was, in short, a monumental advance in a short time.



Buhle, Mari Jo; Paul Buhle; and Dan Georgakas. Encyclopedia of the American Left, 2nd edition. 1997.

Buhle, Paul. Marxism in the United States: Remapping the

History of the American Left, rev. edition. 1991.

Paul Buhle

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