Karl Marx, whose writings provided the basis for Marxism

Marxism is the political ideology that inspired the October Revolution in Russia, as well as other revolutions around the world. It was a movement based on the theories and writings of German philosopher Karl Marx.

Marxism had great appeal to 19th-century thinkers. It offered an analysis of history, politics and society, based on Marx’s studies of capital. Marxism was also a blueprint for revolution with great appeal to radicals of the 19th century.

The founder of Marxism

Karl Marx was born in Prussia in 1818, to a middle-class family of Jewish heritage. Though he trained as a lawyer, Marx’s real interest was in politics and philosophy.

Marx 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 and studying 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. It was also a cry for revolution, a call for “workers of the world” to unite, throw off capitalism and create their own political and economic system.

The Age of Revolution

Marx’s theory of socialist revolution was embraced by political radicals across Europe. Marx was not the only engine of revolutionary sentiment in mid-1800s Europe, however, nor did he develop his theories in isolation. 

Industrialisation had brought rural farmers into the cities seeking work. 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 European continent was gripped by a series of political revolutions and uprisings 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 central idea in Marxism is that human societies are shaped by who owns capital and therefore controls the production and acquisition of commodities.

Throughout history, every class has tried to improve its position. 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, also called the “means of production”. Capital is the material needed to produce or manufacture goods, such as land, buildings, machinery, mineral resources and raw materials.

Control capital, control the world

In capitalist systems, most capital is privately owned by individuals or shareholders. Marx referred to this group as ‘capitalists’ or the bourgeoisie.

In Marxist theory, the bourgeoisie not only own and control the capital, they also dominate democratic and parliamentary systems of government. These political systems are designed to give the impression of democracy and representation. In Marx’s view, they represent and support the bourgeoisie and their economic interests.

The quest for profit, according to Marx, makes the bourgeoisie greedy and exploitative. They deny the proletariat (working classes) a fair share of the profit they help to create. They also minimise costs by deliberately keeping wages low and conditions poor.

Worker exploitation

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 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 or unrestrained capitalism, rapid industrial growth and gross exploitation of workers.

Unionism was not yet established and workers had few if any rights. There were no protections against long working hours, unsafe conditions, workplace injury, unfair dismissal or other mistreatments. Most wages were inadequate for men and even worse for women and children.

Phases of history

Marx’s writings went beyond an analysis of contemporary conditions and looked at human society over time. He argued that all human societies were slowly but inevitably changing.

Marx identified several ‘phases of history’, each determined by the ownership or control of capital. These phases lasted generations or centuries, before change and class struggle saw it 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.

Marxism would come to be embraced around Europe and other parts of the world, wherever there was worker unrest.

This naturally included Russia. The largest Marxist party there was the Russian Social Democratic Party (SDs). This umbrella movement was 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. Countries ripe for a socialist revolution would have a large industrial sector and a sizeable mass of disgruntled industrial workers.

Was Russia ready for socialism?

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 just 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 abolish peasant communes and move towards a democratic phase.

Vladimir Lenin dismissed the argument that Russia was not ready for socialism. Lenin was an advocate of Marxism but not a strict doctrinaire. He was prepared to adapt Marx’s theories to include his own, developing an ideology called Leninist-Marxism.

Lenin believed that in Russia, the capitalist-bourgeois phase could be by-passed or ‘telescoped’ into the socialist phase. This became his ideological justification for the overthrow of the 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.

A historian’s view:
“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 fledgeling 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 capitalist nation, were the advanced countries ‘off the hook’ as it were? Or was the Russian Revolution an aberration, an accident of history?”
Meghnad Desai, historian

1. Marxism is a radical theory of politics, economics and history. It was developed by the German philosopher Karl Marx in the mid-1800s.

2. Marx argued that human society is progressing through stages he called “phases of history”, each of which are determined by the ownership of capital.

3. In Marx’s view, those who control capital and production essentially control society, dominating governments and exploiting workers to increase profit.

4. Marx believed that socialist revolutions must emanate from the industrial working classes. This did not apply well to Russia, which was not fully industrialised.

5. Vladimir Lenin adapted Marxist theory, claiming that a socialist revolution in Russia was possible if the capitalist-democratic phase was bypassed.

Citation information
Title: “Marxism”
Authors: Jennifer Llewellyn, Michael McConnell, Steve Thompson
Publisher: Alpha History
Date published: May 17, 2016
Date accessed: August 20, 2019
Copyright: The content on this page may not be republished without our express permission. For more information on usage, please refer to our Terms of Use.