Theories derived from the work of Karl Marx (1818-1883).

The influence of Marx and of Marxism may be judged from the fact that Marxism has been compared, in its enormous variety, to Christianity.

Starting points, though not conclusions, for Marxism are an understanding of history as moved by class struggle; of economic classes as the principal components of society; of politics as derived from clashes of economic interests of CAPITALISM as a system which denies fundamental human aspirations.

David Miller et al., eds, The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Political Thought (Oxford, 1987)


Karl Marx

Marxism seeks to explain social phenomena within any given society by analyzing the material conditions and economic activities required to fulfill human material needs. It assumes that the form of economic organization, or mode of production, influences all other social phenomena including wider social relations, political institutions, legal systems, cultural systems, aesthetics and ideologies. These social relations, together with the economic system, form a base and superstructure. As forces of production (i.e. technology) improve, existing forms of organizing production become obsolete and hinder further progress. As Karl Marx observed:[10]

At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or—this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms—with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution.

These inefficiencies manifest themselves as social contradictions in society which are, in turn, fought out at the level of class struggle.[11] Under the capitalist mode of production, this struggle materializes between the minority who own the means of production (the bourgeoisie) and the vast majority of the population who produce goods and services (the proletariat). Starting with the conjectural premise that social change occurs as result of the struggle between different classes within society who contradict one another, a Marxist would conclude that capitalism exploits and oppresses the proletariat, therefore capitalism will inevitably lead to a proletarian revolution. In a socialist society, private property—as the means of production—would be replaced by co-operative ownership. A socialist economy would not base production on the creation of private profits, but on the criteria of satisfying human needs—that is, production for use. As Friedrich Engels explains:[12]

Then the capitalist mode of appropriation, in which the product enslaves first the producer, and then the appropriator, is replaced by the mode of appropriation of the products that is based upon the nature of the modern means of production; upon the one hand, direct social appropriation, as means to the maintenance and extension of production — on the other, direct individual appropriation, as means of subsistence and of enjoyment.

Marxian economics and its proponents view capitalism as economically unsustainable and incapable of improving the living standards of the population due to its need to compensate for falling rate of profit by cutting employees’ wages and social benefits while pursuing military aggression. The socialist mode of production would succeed capitalism as humanity’s mode of production through revolution by workers. According to Marxian crisis theory, socialism is not an inevitability, but an economic necessity.[13]


The term Marxism was popularized by Karl Kautsky, who considered himself an orthodox Marxist during the dispute between the orthodox and revisionist followers of Marx.[14]:18–19 Kautsky’s revisionist rival Eduard Bernstein also later adopted use of the term.[14]:18–19

Engels did not support the use of the term Marxism to describe either Marx’s or his own views.[14]:12 He claimed that the term was being abusively used as a rhetorical qualifier by those attempting to cast themselves as real followers of Marx while casting others in different terms such as Lassallians.[14]:12 In 1882, Engels claimed that Marx had criticized self-proclaimed Marxist Paul Lafargue by saying that if Lafargue’s views were considered Marxist, then “one thing is certain and that is that I am not a Marxist”.[14]:12

Historical materialism

The discovery of the materialist conception of history, or rather, the consistent continuation and extension of materialism into the domain of social phenomenon, removed two chief defects of earlier historical theories. In the first place, they at best examined only the ideological motives of the historical activity of human beings, without grasping the objective laws governing the development of the system of social relations. […] in the second place, the earlier theories did not cover the activities of the masses of the population, whereas historical materialism made it possible for the first time to study with scientific accuracy the social conditions of the life of the masses and the changes in these conditions.

— Russian Marxist theoretician and revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, 1913[15]

Society does not consist of individuals, but expresses the sum of interrelations, the relations within which these individuals stand.

— Karl Marx, Grundrisse, 1858[16]

Marxism uses a materialist methodology, referred to by Marx and Engels as the materialist conception of history and later better known as historical materialism, to analyse the underlying causes of societal development and change from the perspective of the collective ways in which humans make their living.[17] Marx’s account of the theory is in The German Ideology (1845)[18] and in the preface A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859).[19] All constituent features of a society (social classes, political pyramid and ideologies) are assumed to stem from economic activity, forming what is considered as the base and superstructure. The base and superstructure metaphor describes the totality of social relations by which humans produce and re-produce their social existence. According to Marx, “[t]he sum total of the forces of production accessible to men determines the condition of society” and forms a society’s economic base.[20]

The base includes the material forces of production such as the labour, means of production and relations of production, i.e. the social and political arrangements that regulate production and distribution. From this base rises a superstructure of legal and political “forms of social consciousness” that derive from the economic base that conditions both the superstructure and the dominant ideology of a society. Conflicts between the development of material productive forces and the relations of production provokes social revolutions, whereby changes to the economic base leads to the social transformation of the superstructure.[21][22]

This relationship is reflexive, in that the base initially gives rise to the superstructure and remains the foundation of a form of social organization. Those newly formed social organizations can then act again upon both parts of the base and superstructure so that rather than being static, the relationship is dialectic, expressed and driven by conflicts and contradictions. As Engels clarifies:[23]

The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.

Marx considered recurring class conflicts as the driving force of human history as such conflicts have manifested themselves as distinct transitional stages of development in Western Europe. Accordingly, Marx designated human history as encompassing four stages of development in relations of production:

  1. Primitive communism: co-operative tribal societies.
  2. Slave society: development of tribal to city-state in which aristocracy is born.
  3. Feudalism: aristocrats are the ruling class while merchants evolve into capitalists.
  4. Capitalism: capitalists are the ruling class, who create and employ the proletariat.

While historical materialism has been referred to as a materialist theory of history, Marx does not claim to have produced a master-key to history and that the materialist conception of history is not “an historico-philosophic theory of the marche generale, imposed by fate upon every people, whatever the historic circumstances in which it finds itself”. In a letter to editor of the Russian newspaper paper Otetchestvennye Zapiskym (1877), he explains that his ideas are based upon a concrete study of the actual conditions in Europe.[24]

Criticism of capitalism

According to the Marxist theoretician and revolutionary socialist Vladimir Lenin, “the principal content of Marxism” was “Marx’s economic doctrine”.[25] Marx believed that the capitalist bourgeoisie and their economists were promoting what he saw as the lie that “the interests of the capitalist and of the worker are […] one and the same”. Thus, he believed that they did this by purporting the concept that “the fastest possible growth of productive capital” was best not only for the wealthy capitalists but also for the workers because it provided them with employment.[26]

Exploitation is a matter of surplus labour—the amount of labour performed beyond what is received in goods. Exploitation has been a socioeconomic feature of every class society and is one of the principal features distinguishing the social classes. The power of one social class to control the means of production enables its exploitation of other classes. Under capitalism, the labour theory of value is the operative concern, whereby the value of a commodity equals the socially necessary labour time required to produce it. Under such condition, surplus value—the difference between the value produced and the value received by a labourer—is synonymous with the term surplus labour and capitalist exploitation is thus realised as deriving surplus value from the worker.

In pre-capitalist economies, exploitation of the worker was achieved via physical coercion. Under the capitalist mode of production, those results are more subtly achieved because workers do not own the means of production and must “voluntarily” enter into an exploitive work relationship with a capitalist in order to earn the necessities of life. The worker’s entry into such employment is voluntary in that they choose which capitalist to work for. However, the worker must work or starve, thus exploitation is inevitable and the voluntary nature of a worker participating in a capitalist society is illusory; it is production, not circulation, that causes exploitation. Marx emphasised that capitalism per se does not cheat the worker.

Alienation (German: Gattungswesen, “species-essence” or “species-being”) is the estrangement of people from their humanity, and a systematic result of capitalism. Under capitalism, the fruits of production belong to employers, who expropriate the surplus created by others and so generate alienated labourers. In Marx’s view, alienation is an objective characterization of the worker’s situation in capitalism—his or her self-awareness of this condition is not prerequisite.[27]

Social classes

Marx distinguishes social classes on the basis of two criteria, i.e. ownership of means of production and control over the labour power of others. Following this criterion of class based on property relations, Marx identified the social stratification of the capitalist mode of production with the following social groups:

  • Proletariat: “[T]he class of modern wage labourers who, having no means of production of their own, are reduced to selling their labour power in order to live”.[28] The capitalist mode of production establishes the conditions that enable the bourgeoisie to exploit the proletariat as the worker’s labour generates a surplus value greater than the worker’s wage.
    • Lumpenproletariat: the outcasts of society, such as the criminals, vagabonds, beggars, or prostitutes, without any political or class consciousness. Having no interest in national, let alone international, economic affairs, Marx claimed that this specific sub-division of the proletariat would play no part in the eventual social revolution.
  • Bourgeoisie: those who “own the means of production” and buy labour power from the proletariat, thus exploiting the proletariat. They subdivide as bourgeoisie and the petite bourgeoisie.
    • Petite bourgeoisie: those who work and can afford to buy little labour power (i.e. small business owners, peasants landlords and trade workers). Marxism predicts that the continual reinvention of the means of production eventually would destroy the petite bourgeoisie, degrading them from the middle class to the proletariat.
  • Landlords: a historically important social class who retain some wealth and power.
  • Peasantry and farmers: a scattered class incapable of organizing and effecting socio-economic change, most of whom would enter the proletariat while some would become landlords.

Class consciousness denotes the awareness—of itself and the social world—that a social class possesses as well as its capacity to rationally act in their best interests. Class consciousness is required before a social class can effect a successful revolution and thus the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Without defining ideology,[29] Marx used the term to describe the production of images of social reality. According to Engels:[30]

[I]deology is a process accomplished by the so-called thinker consciously, it is true, but with a false consciousness. The real motive forces impelling him remain unknown to him; otherwise it simply would not be an ideological process. Hence he imagines false or seeming motive forces.

Because the ruling class controls the society’s means of production, the superstructure of society (i.e. the ruling social ideas), are determined by the best interests of the ruling class. In The German Ideology, Marx says that “[t]he ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is, at the same time, its ruling intellectual force”.[31] The term political economy initially referred to the study of the material conditions of economic production in the capitalist system. In Marxism, political economy is the study of the means of production, specifically of capital and how that manifests as economic activity.

Marxism taught me what society was. I was like a blindfolded man in a forest, who doesn’t even know where north or south is. If you don’t eventually come to truly understand the history of the class struggle, or at least have a clear idea that society is divided between the rich and the poor, and that some people subjugate and exploit other people, you’re lost in a forest, not knowing anything.

— Cuban revolutionary and Marxist–Leninist politician Fidel Castro on discovering Marxism, 2009[32]

This new way of thinking was invented because socialists believed that common ownership of the means of production (i.e. the industries, land, wealth of nature, trade apparatus and wealth of the society) would abolish the exploitative working conditions experienced under capitalism. Through working class revolution, the state (which Marxists saw as a weapon for the subjugation of one class by another) is seized and used to suppress the hitherto ruling class of capitalists and (by implementing a commonly owned, democratically controlled workplace) create the society of communism which Marxists see as true democracy. An economy based on co-operation on human need and social betterment, rather than competition for profit of many independently acting profit seekers, would also be the end of class society, which Marx saw as the fundamental division of all hitherto existing history.

Marx saw work, the effort by humans to transform the environment for their needs, as a fundamental feature of human kind. Capitalism, in which the product of the worker’s labour is taken from them and sold at market rather than being part of the worker’s life, is therefore alienating to the worker. Additionally, the worker is compelled by various means (some nicer than others) to work harder, faster and for longer hours. While this is happening, the employer is constantly trying to save on labour costs by paying the workers less and figuring out how to use cheaper equipment. This allows the employer to extract the largest amount of work and therefore potential wealth from their workers. The fundamental nature of capitalist society is no different from that of slave society, in that one small group of society exploiting the larger group.

Through common ownership of the means of production, the profit motive is eliminated and the motive of furthering human flourishing is introduced. Because the surplus produced by the workers is the property of the society as a whole, there are no classes of producers and appropriators. Additionally, as the state has its origins in the bands of retainers hired by the first ruling classes to protect their economic privilege, it will wither away as its conditions of existence have disappeared.

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