Karl Marx, the philosopher who created Marxism.

In today’s world, few topics spark debate and division like the subject of Marxism. A socialist philosophy developed by Karl Marx, Marxism provided both a critical analysis of history, politics and capitalism, based on pseudo-scientific principles. But it was also a blueprint for revolution, forged in the turbulent world of mid-19th century Europe. Marx was of Jewish-German heritage, born in Prussia to a middle-class family in 1818. Though he trained as a lawyer, Marx’s real interest was in politics and philosophy. He was especially interested in the work of Georg Hegel, who wrote about the dialectic: the method by which two competing ideas create a new idea. In 1844 Marx began a lifelong collaboration with fellow writer Friedrich Engels, who had been investigating the conditions of the working classes in industrial England. Four years later Marx and Engels published their first major text, The Communist Manifesto. On the one hand, it was a scathing criticism of capitalism, its inequalities, exploitation and dehumanising impact on workers. On the other, it was a cry for revolution, a call that “workers of the world” should “unite!” to throw off capitalism and create their own political and economic system.

Marx’s theory of socialist revolution was embraced by thousands of political radicals across Europe, who hoped to contribute to the end of capitalism and the birth of socialism. But Marx was not the only engine of revolutionary sentiment in mid-1800s Europe, nor did he develop his theories in isolation. Industrialisation had brought rural farmers into the cities seeking work; and as these farmers become industrial workers and shared the miserable conditions of 19th century factories, they also shared ideas and grievances. Many felt that ordinary people deserved better conditions and a greater say in how they were governed. In 1848 the continent was gripped by a series of political revolutions and uprisings that erupted in more than a dozen countries including France, the German and Italian states, Austria, Hungary and Denmark. The Communist Manifesto was released that same year.

Marxist theory

The overarching idea in Marxism is that all humans have wants and needs and that human societies are shaped by the production and acquisition of these commodities. Throughout history every class (socioeconomic level of society) has tried to improve its position, developing political and ideological concepts to support this aims. The demands and desires of classes often contradict or clash with those of other classes – for example, business owners want more profit which means lower wage costs; workers want higher wages which means less profit. In Marxism, this ongoing tension is known as class struggle. Marx also noted that the ruling class in every society owns or controls its capital, or the means of production. Capital is the material needed to produce or manufacture goods; different examples of capital are land, buildings, machinery, mineral resources and raw materials. In capitalist systems, most capital is privately owned by individuals or shareholders – it is not owned by the state or the workers. Marx referred to this group as ‘capitalists’ or the bourgeoisie. In Marxist theory, the bourgeoisie not only own and control capital and production, they also dominate democratic and parliamentary systems of government. These political systems are designed to give the impression of democracy and representation, but in reality they represent and support the bourgeoisie and their economic interests.

The quest for greater profits, according to Marx, has made the bourgeoisie greedy and exploitative. They deny the proletariat (the working classes) a fair share of the profit they help to create; they also minimise costs by deliberately keeping wages low and conditions poor. Marx contended that worker exploitation is a significant side-effect of capitalism, as is unemployment, pauperisation (living in poverty or near-poverty) and worker alienation (workers having no interest in their job). The workers in the capitalist system had it tough:  they were ‘wage slaves’ rather than active and well-rewarded participants in the economy. These criticisms of capitalism were certainly valid at the time Marx published them. The first half of the 19th century was a period of laissez faire capitalism, rapid industrial growth and unrestrained exploitation of workers. Unionism was not yet developed; workers had few if any rights. There were no protections against long working hours, unsafe conditions, workplace injury, unfair dismissal or other mistreatment; most wages were inadequate for men and even lower for women and children.

Marx’s writings went beyond analysis of contemporary conditions and looked at the development of human society over time. He claimed that all human societies were slowly but inevitably changing. Marx also identified several ‘phases of history’, determined by the ownership or control of capital. Each of these phases would last for generations or centuries, before change and class struggle led to it being replaced by the next. Through these phases and transitions, human society would struggle to reform and improve itself to achieve an ideal world:

Primitive or tribal-communism.
In this phase, humans lived in small communities and lived a quasi-communistic existence. Both work and resources were shared, while decisions were made communally.

Ancient societies were strongly hierarchical and based on ownership of land and control of labour. The ruling classes relied extensively on slave labour, drawn from the local population or from prisoners of military conquests.

A system that evolved in the medieval period, where kings and lords owned capital (the land) and permitted its use by peasant farmers, in return for their obedience, tributes and military service.

The industrialised system that developed in the 18th century, based on private ownership of capital, like land and factories. Capitalists are driven by the profit motive: in essence, the desire to make more money. In capitalism, labour is supplied by paid workers who are often exploited by the capitalists.

A system that Marx claimed would replace capitalism by revolution. Socialism would begin with the formation of a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, to rule on behalf of the working classes. Private capital would be seized by the state; bourgeois privileges and systems of control would be abolished.

A utopian society without classes, divisions of wealth, exploitation or suffering. Members would provide what they could and receive what they need. The instruments of state, like government bureaucracies, police and military, would become unnecessary and would “wither away”.

Marxism in Russia

A Soviet poster suggesting Lenin as the successor to Marx and Engels.

“But the question for Marxists was: how could Russia have a socialist revolution, given the backward state of its capitalism? How could a revolution so contrary to the predictions of Marxist theory be labelled Marxist? How could there be a proletarian revolution in a country with only a fledgling proletariat? Was Lenin’s revolution not a refutation of Marx, rather than its fulfilment? If there was to be a Marxist revolution in a backward capitalism, were the advanced countries ‘off the hook’ as it were? Or was the Russian Revolution an aberration, an accident of history?”
Meghnad Desai, historian

Marxism was embraced around the world wherever there was worker unrest. This naturally this included Russia. The largest Marxist party there was the Russian Social Democratic Party, or SDs, formed in 1898 from a number of smaller groups. From the outset, Russian Marxism faced several ideological and logistic challenges. Socialist revolution, Marx wrote, was most likely in countries in an advanced state of capitalism, possessing a large industrial sector and sizeable mass of industrial workers. Russia met none of these criteria: her economy was mostly agrarian and industrialisation was a recent development. At the turn of the century, there were about three million Russian industrial workers, or two per cent of the population – hardly an imposing proletariat. Marx himself expressed doubts about Russia’s potential for socialism, writing in 1877 that it must first abolish peasant communes and move towards a democratic phase.

Marx’s lack of faith in a socialist revolution in Russia was later challenged by Lenin. The Bolshevik leader was an advocate of Marxism but not a strict doctrinaire; he was prepared to adapt Marx’s theories to include own, developing an ideology which has since become known as Leninist-Marxism. The most significant change was Lenin’s claim that the capitalist-bourgeois phase in Marxism could be by-passed or ‘telescoped’ into the socialist phase; this became Lenin’s ideological justification for the overthrow of the bourgeois Provisional Government so quickly after its rise to power. Depending on one’s perspective this can be interpreted either as a valid development in Marxist theory or just personal impatience on Lenin’s part. But regardless of this, Marxism – or at least an adapted form of it – was critical to the development of the Russian Revolution of October 1917.

1. Marxism is a theory of politics, economics and history developed by Karl Marx in the mid-1800s.
2. It argues that society progresses through phases, which are determined by ownership of capital.
3. Those who control capital essentially control society, while exploiting the workers to increase profit.
4. Marx’s conditions for socialist revolution did not apply well to Russia, which was not yet industrialised.
5. Lenin adapted Marxist theory, claiming that a socialist revolution in Russia was possible if the capitalist-democratic phase was bypassed.

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This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, John Rae and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “Marxism” at Alpha History,, 2014, accessed [date of last access].