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Marxism is a political method of societal analysis that focuses on class relations and societal conflict, that uses a materialist interpretation of historical development, and a dialectical view of social transformation. Marxist methodology uses economic and sociopolitical inquiry and applies that to the critique and analysis of the development of capitalism and the role of class struggle in systemic economic change.
In the mid-to-late 19th century, the intellectual tenets of Marxism were inspired by two German philosophers: Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Marxist analyses and methodologies have influenced multiple political ideologies and social movements. Marxism encompasses an economic theory, a sociological theory, a philosophical method, and a revolutionary view of social change.
There is no single definitive Marxist theory; Marxist analysis has been applied to diverse subjects and has been misconceived and modified during the course of its development, resulting in numerous and sometimes contradictory theories that fall under the rubric of Marxism or Marxian analysis.
Marxism builds on a materialist understanding of societal development, taking as its starting point the necessary economic activities required to satisfy the material needs of human society. The form of economic organization or mode of production is understood to give rise to, or at least directly influences, most other social phenomena – including social relations, political and legal systems, morality and ideology. Thus, the economic system and social relations are called a base and superstructure. As the forces of production (most notably technology) improve, existing forms of social organization become inefficient and stifle further progress. These inefficiencies manifest themselves as social contradictions in the form of class struggle.
According to Marxist analysis, class conflict within capitalism arises due to intensifying contradictions between highly productive mechanized and socialized production performed by the proletariat, and private ownership and appropriation of the surplus product in the form of surplus value (profit) by a small minority of private owners called the bourgeoisie. As the contradiction becomes apparent to the proletariat, social unrest between the two antagonistic classes intensifies, culminating in a social revolution. The eventual long-term outcome of this revolution would be the establishment of socialism – a socioeconomic system based on cooperative ownership of the means of production, distribution based on one's contribution, and production organized directly for use. Karl Marx hypothesized that, as the productive forces and technology continued to advance, socialism would eventually give way to a communist stage of social development. Communism would be a classless, stateless, humane society erected on common ownership and the principle of "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs".
Marxism has developed into different branches and schools of thought. Different schools place a greater emphasis on certain aspects of classical Marxism while de-emphasizing or rejecting other aspects of Marxism, sometimes combining Marxist analysis with non-Marxian concepts. Some variants of Marxism primarily focus on one aspect of Marxism as the determining force in social development – such as the mode of production, class, power-relationships or property ownership – while arguing other aspects are less important or current research makes them irrelevant. Despite sharing similar premises, different schools of Marxism might reach contradictory conclusions from each other. For instance, different Marxian economists have contradictory explanations of economic crisis and different predictions for the outcome of such crises. Furthermore, different variants of Marxism apply Marxist analysis to study different aspects of society (e.g. economic crises or feminism).
These theoretical differences have led various socialist and communist parties and political movements to embrace different political strategies for attaining socialism and advocate different programs and policies from each other. One example of this is the division between revolutionary socialists and reformists that emerged in the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) during the early 20th century. Similarly, although the Bolsheviks of Russia declared Leninism and later Marxism–Leninism to be the only legitimate development of Marxism, the Mensheviks and many other social democrats worldwide considered them totalitarian deviations.
Marxist understandings of history and of society have been adopted by academics in the disciplines of archaeology and anthropology, media studies, political science, theater, history, sociology, art history and art theory, cultural studies, education, economics, geography, literary criticism, aesthetics, critical psychology, and philosophy.
The Marxian analysis begins with an analysis of material conditions and the economic activities required to satisfy society's material needs. It is understood that the form of economic organization, or mode of production, gives rise to, or at least directly influences, most other social phenomena – including social relations, political and legal systems, morality and ideology. The economic system and these social relations form a base and superstructure. As forces of production, most notably technology, improve, existing forms of social organization become inefficient and stifle further progress. As Karl Marx observed: "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 in the form of class struggle. Under the capitalist mode of production, this struggle materializes between the minority (the bourgeoisie) who own the means of production, and the vast majority of the population (the proletariat) who produce goods and services. Taking the idea that social change occurs because of the struggle between different classes within society who are under contradiction against each other, leads the Marxist analysis to the conclusion that capitalism exploits and oppresses the proletariat, which leads to a proletarian revolution.
Capitalism (according to Marxist theory) can no longer sustain the living standards of the population due to its need to compensate for falling rates of profit by driving down wages, cutting social benefits and pursuing military aggression. The socialist system would succeed capitalism as humanity's mode of production through workers' revolution. According to Marxism, especially arising from Crisis theory, Socialism is a historical necessity (but not an inevitability).
In a socialist society private property in the means of production would be superseded 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 would be carried out directly for use. As Engels observed: "Then the capitalist mode of appropriation in which the product enslaves first the producer, and then appropriator, is replaced by the mode of appropriation of the product 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."'
"Society does not consist of individuals, but expresses the sum of interrelations, the relations within which these individuals stand."
The historical materialist theory of history dialectically analyses the underlying causes of societal development and change in the collective ways humans make their living. All constituent features of a society (social classes, political pyramid, ideologies) stem from economic activity, an idea often conveyed with the metaphor of the base and superstructure.
The base and superstructure metaphor explains that the totality of social relations in and by which humans product and re-product their social existence, forms a society's economic base. From this base rises a superstructure of political and legal institutions, i.e., ruling class. The base corresponds to the social consciousness (politics, religion, philosophy, etc.), and it conditions the superstructure and the dominant ideology. A conflict between the development of material productive forces and the relations of production provokes social revolutions, thus, the resultant changes to the economic base will lead to the transformation of the superstructure. This relationship is reflexive; At first the base gives rise to the superstructure and remains the foundation of a form of social organization. Hence, that formed social organization can act again upon both parts of the base and superstructure, whose relationship is not unilinear but dialectic, namely a relationship driven by conflicts and contradictions. As Friedrich Engels clarified: "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 these socio-economic conflicts as the driving force of human history since these recurring conflicts have manifested themselves as distinct transitional stages of development in Western Europe. Accordingly, Marx designates human history as encompassing four stages of development in relations of production.
"We are, in Marx's terms, ‘an ensemble of social relations' and we live our lives at the core of the intersection of a number of unequal social relations based on hierarchically interrelated structures which, together, define the historical specificity of the capitalist modes of production and reproduction and underlay their observable manifestations."—Martha E. Gimenez, Marxism and Class, Gender and Race: Rethinking the Trilogy
According to the Marxist theoretician and revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, "the principal content of Marxism" was "Marx's economic doctrine". Marx believed that the capitalist bourgeois and their economists were promoting what he saw as the lie that "The interests of the capitalist and those of the worker are ... one and the same"; 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.
Exploitation is a matter of surplus labour – the amount of labour one performs beyond what one receives in goods. Exploitation has been a socio-economic 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 the other classes.
In capitalism, the labour theory of value is the operative concern; the value of a commodity equals the socially necessary labour time required to produce it. Under that condition, surplus value (the difference between the value produced and the value received by a labourer) is synonymous with the term "surplus labour"; thus, capitalist exploitation is realised as deriving surplus value from the worker.
In pre-capitalist economies, exploitation of the worker was achieved via physical coercion. In the capitalist mode of production, that result is more subtly achieved; because the worker does not own the means of production, he or she 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 he or she chooses 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.
Alienation is the estrangement of people from their humanity (German: Gattungswesen, "species-essence", "species-being"), which is a systematic result of capitalism. Under capitalism, the fruits of production belong to the 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.
The identity of a social class derives from its relationship to the means of production; Marx describes the social classes in capitalist societies:
Class consciousness denotes the awareness – of itself and the social world – that a social class possesses, and its capacity to rationally act in their best interests; hence, class consciousness is required before they can effect a successful revolution.
Without defining ideology, Marx used the term to denote the production of images of social reality; according to Engels, "ideology 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, the ruling social ideas are determined by the best interests of the said ruling class. In The German Ideology, "the 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".
The term "political economy" originally denoted the study of the conditions under which economic production was organised in the capitalist system. In Marxism, political economy studies the means of production, specifically of capital, and how that manifests as economic activity.
Marxists believe that the transition from capitalism to socialism is an inevitable part of the development of human society; as Lenin stated, "it is evident that Marx deduces the inevitability of the transformation of capitalist society [into a socialist society] wholly and exclusively from the economic law of motion of contemporary society."
Marxists believe that a socialist society will be far better for the majority of the populace than its capitalist counterpart, for instance, prior to the Russian revolution of 1917, Lenin wrote that "The socialization of production is bound to lead to the conversion of the means of production into the property of society ... This conversion will directly result in an immense increase in productivity of labour, a reduction of working hours, and the replacement of the remnants, the ruins of small-scale, primitive, disunited production by collective and improved labour."
The term Classical Marxism denotes the collection of socio-eco-political theories expounded by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. "Marxism", as Ernest Mandel remarked, "is always open, always critical, always self-critical." As such, Classical Marxism distinguishes between "Marxism" as broadly perceived, and "what Marx believed"; thus, in 1883, Marx wrote to the French labour leader Jules Guesde and to Paul Lafargue (Marx's son-in-law) – both of whom claimed to represent Marxist principles – accusing them of "revolutionary phrase-mongering" and of denying the value of reformist struggle; from Marx's letter derives the paraphrase: "If that is Marxism, then I am not a Marxist". American Marxist scholar Hal Draper responded to this comment by saying, "there are few thinkers in modern history whose thought has been so badly misrepresented, by Marxists and anti-Marxists alike".
Some Marxists have criticised the academic institutionalisation of Marxism for being too shallow and detached from political action. For instance, Zimbabwean Trotskyist Alex Callinicos, himself a professional academic, stated that "Its practitioners remind one of Narcissus, who in the Greek legend fell in love with his own reflection ... Sometimes it is necessary to devote time to clarifying and developing the concepts that we use, but indeed for Western Marxists this has become an end in itself. The result is a body of writings incomprehensible to all but a tiny minority of highly qualified scholars."
Marxism has been adopted by a large number of academics and other scholars working in various disciplines.
The theoretical development of Marxist archaeology was first developed in the Soviet Union in 1929, when a young archaeologist named Vladislav I. Ravdonikas (1894–1976) published a report entitled "For a Soviet history of material culture". Within this work, the very discipline of archaeology as it then stood was criticised as being inherently bourgeoisie and therefore anti-socialist, and so, as a part of the academic reforms instituted in the Soviet Union under the administration of Premier Joseph Stalin, a great emphasis was placed on the adoption of Marxist archaeology throughout the country. These theoretical developments were subsequently adopted by archaeologists working in capitalist states outside of the Leninist bloc, most notably by the Australian academic V. Gordon Childe (1892–1957), who used Marxist theory in his understandings of the development of human society.
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. Kautsky's revisionist rival Eduard Bernstein also later adopted use of the term. Engels did not support the use of the term "Marxism" to describe either Marx's or his views. Engels 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". In 1882, Engels claimed that Marx had criticized self-proclaimed "Marxist" Paul Lafargue, by saying that if Lafargue's views were considered "Marxist", then "[o]ne thing is certain and that is that I am not a Marxist".
Karl Marx (5 May 1818 – 14 March 1883) was a German philosopher, political economist, and socialist revolutionary, who addressed the matters of alienation and exploitation of the working class, the capitalist mode of production, and historical materialism. He is famous for analysing history in terms of class struggle, summarised in the initial line introducing the Communist Manifesto (1848): "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles".
Friedrich Engels (28 November 1820 – 5 August 1895) was a German political philosopher and Karl Marx's co-developer of communist theory. Marx and Engels met in September 1844; discovering that they shared like views of philosophy and socialism, they collaborated and wrote works such as Die heilige Familie (The Holy Family). After Marx was deported from France in January 1845, Engels and Marx moved to Belgium, which then permitted greater freedom of expression than other European countries; in January 1846, they returned to Brussels to establish the Communist Correspondence Committee.
In 1847, they began writing The Communist Manifesto (1848), based on Engels' The Principles of Communism; six weeks later, they published the 12,000-word pamphlet in February 1848. In March, Belgium expelled them, and they moved to Cologne, where they published the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, a politically radical newspaper. Again, by 1849, they had to leave Cologne for London. The Prussian authorities pressured the British government to expel Marx and Engels, but Prime Minister Lord John Russell refused.
After Karl Marx's death in 1883, Friedrich Engels became the editor and translator of Marx's writings. With his Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884) – analysing monogamous marriage as guaranteeing male social domination of women, a concept analogous, in communist theory, to the capitalist class's economic domination of the working class – Engels made intellectually significant contributions to feminist theory and Marxist feminism.
In 1959, the Cuban Revolution led to the victory of anti-imperialist Fidel Castro (1926–) and his July 26 Movement. Although the revolution had not been explicitly socialist, upon victory Castro ascended to the position of Prime Minister and eventually adopted the Leninist model of socialist development, forging an alliance with the Soviet Union. One of the leaders of the revolution, the Argentine Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara (1928–1967), subsequently went on to aid revolutionary socialist movements in Congo-Kinshasa and Bolivia, eventually being killed by the Bolivian government, possibly on the orders of the CIA, though the CIA agent sent to search for Guevara, Felix Rodriguez expressed a desire to keep him alive as a possible bargaining tool with the Cuban government; he would posthumously go on to become an internationally recognised icon.
In the People's Republic of China, the Maoist government undertook the Cultural Revolution from 1966 through to 1976 in order to purge capitalist elements from Chinese society and entrench socialism. However, upon Mao's death, his rivals seized political power and under the Premiership of Deng Xiaoping (1978–1992), many of Mao's Cultural Revolution era policies were revised or abandoned and much of the state sector privatised.
The late 1980s and early 1990s saw the collapse of most of those socialist states that had professed a Marxist–Leninist ideology. In the late 1970s and 1980s, the emergence of the New Right and neoliberal capitalism as the dominant ideological trends in western politics – championed by U.S. President Ronald Reagan and U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher – led the west to take a more aggressive stand against the Soviet Union and its Leninist allies. Meanwhile, in the Soviet Union, the reformist Mikhael Gorbachev (1931–) became Premier in March 1985, and began to move away from Leninist-based models of development towards social democracy. Ultimately, Gorbachev's reforms, coupled with rising levels of popular ethnic nationalism in the Soviet Union, led to the state's dissolution in late 1991 into a series of constituent nations, all of which abandoned Marxist–Leninist models for socialism, with most converting to capitalist economies.
At the turn of the 21st century, China, Cuba, Laos and Vietnam remained the only officially Marxist–Leninist states remaining, although a Maoist government led by Prachanda (1954–) was elected into power in Nepal in 2008 following a long guerrilla struggle. The early 21st century also saw the election of socialist and anti-imperialist governments in several Latin American nations, in what has come to be known as the "Pink tide". Dominated by the Venezuelan government of Hugo Chávez, this trend also saw the election of Evo Morales in Bolivia, Rafael Correa in Ecuador and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua; forging political and economic alliances through international organisations like the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas, these socialist governments allied themselves with Marxist–Leninist Cuba, and although none of them espoused a Leninist path directly, most admitted to being significantly influenced by Marxist theory. For Italian Marxist Gianni Vattimo in his 2011 book Hermeneutic Communism "this new weak communism differs substantially from its previous Soviet (and current Chinese) realization, because the South American countries follow democratic electoral procedures and also manage to decentralize the state bureaucratic system through the misiones (social missions for community projects). In sum, if weakened communism is felt as a specter in the West, it is not only because of media distortions but also for the alternative it represents through the same democratic procedures that the West constantly professes to cherish but is hesitant to apply"
Criticisms of Marxism have come from various political ideologies. Additionally, there are intellectual critiques of Marxism that contest certain assumptions prevalent in Marx's thought and Marxism after him, without exactly rejecting Marxist politics. Other, contemporary supporters of Marxism argue that many aspects of Marxist thought are viable, but that the corpus is incomplete or outdated in regards to certain aspects of economic, political or social theory. They may therefore combine some Marxist concepts with the ideas of other theorists such as Max Weber: the Frankfurt school is one example.
Democratic socialists and social democrats reject the idea that socialism can be accomplished only through extra-legal class conflict and a proletarian revolution. The relationship between Marx and other socialist thinkers and organizations, rooted in Marxism's "scientific" and anti-utopian socialism, among other factors, has divided Marxists from other socialists since Marx's life. After Marx's death, and with the emergence of Marxism, there have additionally been dissensions within Marxism itself- the splitting of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party into Bolsheviks and Mensheviks a notable example. "Orthodox" Marxism became counterposed to a less dogmatic, more innovative, or even revisionist Marxism.
Anarchism has had a strained relationship with Marxism since Marx's life. Anarchists and libertarian socialists reject the need for a transitory state phase, claiming that socialism can only be established through decentralized, non-coercive organization. Individualist anarchists, who are often neither socialists nor capitalists, reject Marxism as a statist ideology. Anarchist Mikhail Bakunin criticized Marx for his authoritarian bent. The phrase "barracks socialism" became a shorthand for this critique, evoking the image of citizens' lives being as regimented as the lives of conscripts in a barracks.
Other critiques come from an economic standpoint. Economists such as Friedrich Hayek have criticized Marxism for allocating resources inefficiently.
V. K. Dmitriev, writing in 1898, Ladislaus von Bortkiewicz, writing in 1906–07, and subsequent critics have alleged that Marx's value theory and law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall are internally inconsistent. In other words, the critics allege that Marx drew conclusions that actually do not follow from his theoretical premises. Once these alleged errors are corrected, his conclusion that aggregate price and profit are determined by, and equal to, aggregate value and surplus value no longer holds true. This result calls into question his theory that the exploitation of workers is the sole source of profit.
Both Marxism and socialism have received considerable critical analysis from multiple generations of Austrian economists in terms of scientific methodology, economic theory, and political implications. During the marginal revolution, subjective value theory was rediscovered by Carl Menger, a development which undermined the British cost theories of value fundamentally. The restoration of subjectivism and praxeological methodology previously used by classical economic scientists including Richard Cantillon, Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot, Jean-Baptiste Say, and Frédéric Bastiat led Menger to criticise historicist methodology in general. Second-generation Austrian economist Eugen Böhm von Bawerk used praxeological and subjectivist methodology to attack the law of value fundamentally. Non-Marxist economists have regarded his criticism as definitive, with Gottfried Haberler arguing that Böhm-Bawerk's critique of Marx's economics was so thorough and devastating that as of the 1960s no Marxian scholar had conclusively refuted it. Third-generation Austrian Ludwig Von Mises sparked the economic calculation debate by identifying that without price signals in capital goods, all other aspects of the market economy are irrational. This led him to declare "... that rational economic activity is impossible in a socialist commonwealth." Mises then elaborated on every form of socialism more completely in his 1922 book Socialism, an Economic and Sociological Analysis. Contemporary Austrian critics include Murray Rothbard, David Gordon, Yuri Maltsev, Gary North, and Joseph Salerno.
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Marxian theory (singular) gave way to Marxian theories (plural).
Marxist political economists differ over their definitions of capitalism, socialism and communism. These differences are so fundamental, the arguments among differently persuaded Marxist political economists have sometimes been as intense as their oppositions to political economies that celebrate capitalism.
The German Marxists extended the theory to groups and issues Marx had barely touched. Marxian analyses of the legal system, of the social role of women, of foreign trade, of international rivalries among capitalist nations, and the role of parliamentary democracy in the transition to socialism drew animated debates ... Marxian theory (singular) gave way to Marxian theories (plural).
I have no hesitation in saying that this represents a gigantic crudification and simplification of Marx's work – the kind of simplification and reductionism which once led him, in despair, to say "if that is marxism, then I am not a marxist"
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