What is Marxism?

Karl Heinrich Marx (1818-1883) was a radical social theorist, whose thoughts on social, economic and political systems are generally referred to as “Marxism” (Honderich, 1995). The basic tenets of Marxist philosophy are predicated on Marx’s theory of history, which regards human history as a continuous struggle between socio-economic classes (Witt, et al, 1980). According to Marx, a particular class could rule over the rest of society only so long as that class best represented the economically productive forces of that society. When it no longer fulfilled this function, it would be destroyed and replaced in an ongoing continuously dynamic process. Marx felt that this process would eventually culminate in a classless society (Witt, et al, 1980).

Writing from a nineteenth century, European perspective, Marx could find substantiation for his theory in the way that bourgeois capitalist society had previously destroyed and replaced the no longer productive European feudal nobility and established a new industrialized order. As this implies, Marx’s materialist conception of history stated that the goals of a class movement are determined by “the set of production relations the class is in a position to establish and defend” (Honderich, 1995, p. 525). Contradictory to what actually happened in the Russian Revolution of 1917, Marx indicated that historically conscious revolutionaries should not set utopian goals for themselves and then look around for the means to achieve them (Honderich, 1995). Rather, he saw revolutionary practice as best carried out by participating in an already developing class movement (Honderich, 1995). Certainly the abject poverty of the working classes in the nineteenth century indicated that social revolution was a desirable goal. To realize the dire straits of the working classes of the nineteenth century – their economic and social hardships – is a simple matter. Just browse any novel by Charles Dickens, or read The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, which demonstrates that the hardships experienced by immigrants to the US doing factory work extended into the twentieth century. Marx felt that the stage was set for a struggle between the bourgeoisie, which he believed had already accomplished its historical role, and the proletariat, the class which was composed of factory workers who were the true producers of economic goods (Witt, et al, 1980).

As this implies, Marx’s economic theories support his historic premises. Marx’s labor theory of value and his concept of surplus value are particularly important in this regard. Marx posited that the value of a given commodity is predicated on the amount of labor that is required for its creation (Honderich, 1995). According to Marx, in mid-nineteenth European society, the value of commodities that a worker could purchase with wages were inevitably less then the value of the commodities that the worker produced. This difference, Marx referred to as “surplus value” and connected it with the profits enjoyed by capitalists (Honderich, 1995). In this manner, Marx argued that the affluence of the bourgeois class was created through their exploitation of the proletariat.

Marx saw the laissez-faire capitalism of the nineteenth century as being riddled with weaknesses, contradictions and inequalities, as indeed, it was. He predicted that these factors would be come increasingly severe and result in economic crisis as industrialization progressed (Witt, et al, 1980). Furthermore, Marx predicted in his Communist Manifesto that the inevitable overthrow of the bourgeoisie by the proletariat would first succeed in a highly industrialized capitalistic nation (Marx, 2001). After the proletariat became the ruling class, the next goal would be to “centralize all instruments of production in the hands of the state” (Marx, 2001). With the means of production owned by the state, and not by any one specific group, a classless society would be achieved.

Since the death of Marx, his basic philosophy has gone through numerous permutations and interpretations by various groups and individuals, all of which claimed that their viewpoint on Marx’s writings constituted the real “Marxism.” For example, when the early writings of Marx were published around 1930, it revealed a new dimension to his philosophy that as quite different from the “rather arid economist” of Katusky’s interpretation and also from the dialectical materialist of Soviet dogma (Honderich, 1995, p. 526). In these early writings Marx appeared to be a both a philosopher and a humanist, offering a devastating account of humanity in capitalist society, which he contrasted with a detailed account of the potential latent in the individual waiting to be realized via communism (Honderich, 1995).

This enthusiasm for the early Marx powered the writings of many philosophers, such as Georg Lukacs (Honderich, 1995). However, the Marxist philosophy that was formulated by Althusser and his group in the early 1960s attempted to purge Marxism of these elements. In other words, this group continued the Soviet stance that divided Marx’s writings into categories – the “early” Marx and the later “scientific” Marx. Althusser’s group regarded any reading of Marx as a humanist or as someone influenced by Hegel, or as a historicist, must be rejected.

Honderich (1995) points out that all of the philosophies that have been invoked in the name of “Marxism” are the product of bourgeois society – “the very societies that Marxism is dedicated to superseding” (p. 527). The inherent tension that this produces continues to become more and more exacerbated as Western Marxists become more and more theoretical in their approach, due to the fact that history is not working out as Marx predicted, and the chances for a successful Marxist society are rapidly decreasing (Honderich, 1995).

As this illustrates, Marxism has become rather like Christianity, in that society has the written words of what Marx actually said, but society also has the various and multiple ways that these words have been interpreted over more then a century, making the question — “What is Marxism?” — at least partially a function of who is being asked – just like Catholics and Protestants would have differing answers to the question of “What is Christianity?”

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