What is Marxism?

Accusations against Barack Obama by the political right in the US, recent media coverage of protest movements like Occupy Wall Street, and increased exposure for pop-philosophers like Slavoj Zizek have all brought the topic of Marxism back in the spotlight of popular attention in the west. In the process, little explanation has been given as to what Marxism is.

This essay will trace the philosophical foundations of Marxism and outline the most significant and relevant features of its historical development. My hope is to shed an incisive light on the topic of Marxism, specifically in a way that gets past its employment as a buzzword or slogan by either the political right or ‘left.’ Marxism, as we shall see, is a rich philosophical “guide to action” grounded in the long-standing struggle against capitalist-imperialism and for proletarian revolution.


Marxism is named after its principal intellectual founder, Karl Marx. Marx, along with his close colleague Friedrich Engels, were part of a 19th century undercurrent of opposition to the consolidated hegemony of capitalism in Europe. In 1848, the same year of the European Spring Revolutions, Marx and Engels authored The Communist Manifesto, which to this day is one of the most widely distributed books in history.

Karl Marx particularly offered a systematic critique of capitalism: one which they relied on the basic premises laid out by its biggest proponents and conclusively demonstrated its destructive, exploitative nature. This systematic critique of capitalism was partially laid out in three volumes of Capital (1867; 1885; 1894). 1

Marx and Engels were also organizers and participants in the International Workingmens Association, otherwise known as the First International, and contemporaries of the Paris Commune, a seventy-two day urban revolt in which the city was seized by its residents.

So what is Marxism?

Marxism is foremost an intellectual method grounded the concrete struggle against extant class relations and for communism. This method can be broken down into a few parts.

First is historical materialism: the outlook that social life is grounded in the means of producing and consuming sustenance and wealth. Marx and Engels’ historical materialism further categorized society according to classes: different groups with different relationships to the means of production. Under emergent capitalism, the development of new productive forces enabled the creation of a proletarian class who worked together but did not own the means of production. Instead, the means of production were owned by the capitalist class which grew rich through the exploitation of the proletariat. Struggles between different classes contesting their relationship of the means of producing wealth (and hence their relationship to each other), Marx stated, is the principal driver of historical development. In the classical view, the contradiction between a growing proletariat working with increasingly productive technology for a shrinking bourgeoisie class was unique. Capitalism, thought Marx and Engles, was progressive insofar as it could lay the groundwork for communism: the democratic, egalitarian and rational sharing of work and reward.

In their own time, Marx and Engels divided classes into fairly homogeneous groups that they saw Europe developing to encompass. The bourgeoisie (or capitalists) owned the means of production and hence lived entirely off the exploited labor of other. By Marx and Engels’ lifetimes, this class had largely usurped state power throughout Europe though often in accordance with monarchical political systems. The petty-bourgeoisie had some minor holding of capital and typically hired the labor of others while engaged in productive labor themselves. The proletariat owned nothing with which to sustain themselves and thus was forced to sell their labor power (i.e., the ability to work) to the bourgeoisie. The lumpen-proletariat, or underclass, was normally unemployed and driven into begging, criminality, etc. The peasantry was the majority class in pre-capitalist time who were engaged in mostly rural agricultural non-commodity production. Their gradual dispossession fed the ranks the emerging urban proletariat.

In economics, Marx popularized the notion of the labor theory of value. The labor theory of value states that all wealth is the accumulated product of human labor. Marx’s various treatise on political economy demonstrated how exploitation of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie was a central feature of the capitalist system.

Philosophically, Marxism has tended to adhere to dialectical materialism. Dialectical materialism is a useful conceptual model for understanding  social developments. It is not a hermetic philosophy, nor an accurate deductive representation of the physical world itself. In the context of Marx and Engels’ lifetimes, dialectical materialist was both a rebellion against the previous metaphysical dialectics of Hegel and an attempt to incorporate the latest natural scientific views, inspired by contemporaries such as Charles Darwin, to justify revolution in a deeper philosophical sense.

Conceptually, dialectical materialism stresses functionally related opposites. You can’t have rich people without poor people, or visa versa; or in the modern context underdeveloped economies without overdeveloped ones. Next, it stresses the inherent motion of the all things. Nothing is static. There is no state of social relations, but rather a process through with social relations are reproduced at different levels or subsumed under different social relations (i.e. revolution).

Early differences with other anti-capitalist trends

Marxism developed at a time when a number of radical left-wing political currents circulated in Europe. Most oppositional trends in Europe simply wanted to reform capitalism to make it more amenable to workers and the petty-bourgeoisie, offered utopian visions absent class struggle, or desired a return to an idyllic pre-capitalist past. Marxism differed from these trends by advocating for a forward-looking communism based on the tangible struggle of working people. Marxism contended that workers should to seize control over the means of production, place them under common ownership, and proceed to build a society without classes  or a state but with material abundance.

In some regards Marxism was and is similar to Anarchism, insofar as the goal of communism (a stateless, classless society absent oppression) is regarded. While Anarchism as a radical anti-capitalist philosophy disavowals utilizing any state form in the struggle for this end goal, Marx maintained this was idealistic. Rather, according to Marxism, the struggle over state power is an inevitable part of any class struggle. Thus the proletariat must at once seize the means of production and establish a new revolutionary state in order to defend against counter-revolutionary resistance.

Was Marx Euro-Centric?

Marx spent most of his time studying Europe, and he thought the European working class was the central revolutionary class of his day. Europe at the time was rapidly developing new productive technologies and most working people lived in conditions scarcely better or worse than what is faced by a majority of people globally today. The relatively new urban European proletariat was better educated than previous classes and was in direct contact with yet themselves disempowered by the productive technologies which the capitalists of European countries (principally England, Germany, and France, along with the US) maintained monopolies on. In Marx’s view, this proletariat was best situated to seize these productive technologies and change the course of history.

Marx acknowledged that profits from the slaves trade and colonial mercantilism provided the start-up capital for the development of industrial ‘classical’ capitalism, and he never denied the human cost associated with this development. Moreover, he firmly held that colonial emancipation (of Black slaves in the US, and of Ireland by the British) was a prerequisite to proletarian revolution. Despite this, he also at times held the contradictory view that colonialism as an agent of capitalist development was progressive.

Despite these ambiguities, it has ironically been outside of Europe in which Marxism has had to most distinct and durable effect.

Marxism after Marx

Following the deaths of Marx and Engels, Marxism lived on and had a tremendous impact during the 20th century. The Second International, or Socialist International, was founded in 1889. It was a continuation of the First International following the split between Marxists and Anarchists in 1872. The Second International is notable for declaring May 1st to be International Workers’ Day and March 8th to be International Women’s Day, two holidays which are still celebrated in many countries around the world. However, the unity of the Socialist International would be short-lived and it too disbanded in 1916.

Divisions within the Second International ran along two principal axes. The first was between reformism (attempting to seize power via elections and participating in existing states so as to gradually change their character, and pursuing workplace reforms as strategic ends) and revolutionary trends (attempting to build ‘dual power’ through independent, oppositional institutions and to seize power from the existing state by overthrowing it). The second division principally cropped up at the onset of World War I. This split occurred between those who bowed to nationalist sentiments  and supported their own government’s war effort against others and internationalist sentiments which sought a ‘revolutionary defeat’ of their own country’s capitalist ruling class.

Brought to a head by the war, these differences led to the disbanding the Second International. One group, which included many of the reformist right-wing parties from western Europe, retained the term ‘Social Democrats’ to identify themselves. The revolutionary wing adopted the term ‘Communist.’

Russia and the Third International

While Marxism developed in Europe during the 19th century, its application during the 1917 Russian Revolution heralded a new turn. The Bolshevik Revolution’s success in the midst of WWI had a driving impact not only in Marxism’s popularity but also in its intellectual development. Based on the successful experience of the Russian Revolution and the split with the Social Democrats, Marxism was both further refined and elaborated. Additionally, Marxism now had an official state sponsor, the Soviet Union which devoted part of its resources to disseminating its brand of Marxism and to supporting radical movements internationally.

Part of this task of spreading revolutionary Marxism was undertaken by the Third International, or Communist International, which was formed in 1919 at the impetus of Russian Communists such as Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. As part of the redefined Marxist thought sponsored through the Third International, the necessity of organizing to seize power through revolution was substantiated. Changes in global class dynamics brought on by the development of imperialism forced the Russian Communists to reassess both the nature of the global working class and strategic potentials for further revolutionary advances across new territories. The term ‘labor aristocracy’ was coined to describe “a privileged upper stratum of the proletariat in the imperialist countries [which] lives partly at the expense of hundreds of millions” in colonized nations. This upper stratum of the proletariat was seen as bribed by ‘their own’ monopoly capitalist bourgeoisie. Thus, Russian Communists began directing much of their efforts to supporting democratic anti-colonial movements in the ‘East.’

Marxism moves East, Maoism is born

Following the Russian Revolution, the central plain of struggle against capitalist shifted from the imperialist West to the areas which had fallen under their colonial dominance. Due to Russia’s support of various national liberation movements in the periphery, many of these struggles were increasingly influenced by Marxism. Likewise, the question of organizing class warfare in colonized countries opened up questions which hadn’t been addressed before under Marxism.

One of the largest and most significant revolutions occurred in China. It was a product of a decades long struggle beginning with the 1911 nationalist revolution. Following the formation of the Communist Party of China in 1921, the struggle advanced further and took on the form of a large scale civil conflict: a protracted people’s war which defeated an invading Japanese army and the US-supported Kuomintang Party in order to establish the People’s Republic of China in October 1949.

The success of the Chinese Revolution was a qualitative leap in Marxist practice and theory. The Chinese Revolution was successful in great because the Chinese Communist Party adopted a Marxist outlook to actual conditions of struggle. It had adopted a strategy which relied on the peasantry as a mass base, built up independent liberated zones, created a People’s Army and People’s Militia under the Party command, developed a strategy of people’s war and mass line, and sought political unity through a united front against imperialism. In many ways, the strategies applied by the Chinese Communist Party in seizing power are significant for all revolutionary movements in the Third World today.

One of the most significant extensions made to Marxist theory following the Chinese Revolution was the notion of continuing class struggle under the dictatorship of the proletariat. Following the founding the PRC, Chinese Communist Party had noticed two revisionist tendencies of ruling communist parties. One was to deviate away from supporting the revolutionary struggle against imperialism. The other was pursuing policies which ossified their own positions of power within the structure of post-revolutionary societies. Following the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953, parts of the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party increasingly noted the manner in which the USSR was ran like a capitalist state domestically and colluded with the United States internationally. As well, struggles within China brought the questionable future of domestic social relations to the fore.

Within China, on one side stood Mao Zedong, a principal leader of the Chinese Revolution, and various left-wing leading cadre, whom contended that pitched class struggles would occur until capitalist-imperialism was defeated internationally. On the other side stood much of the party bureaucracy, which sought to engender greater domestic and international stability for the sake of securing their own positions of privilege and authority. This struggle was officially known as the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (GPCR). While it officially lasted from 1966 to 1976, its most important years actually spanned from 1964 to 1971 (the struggles and preparations leading up to the GPCR through the dismemberment of the left). Despite the firm victory of the ‘capitalist road’ over the ‘socialist road’ by the end of the GPCR, the lessons derived from its experience remain an inherent part of Marxism today.

Global class analysis

While Third World-centered, Marxist-influenced national liberation movements flourished in the latter half of the 20th century, a few Marxists began further examining the overall changes in global class dynamics which had led to this shifting of revolutionary struggles from Europe in the 19th century to Africa, Asia, and Latin America by the 20th. Often such work was carried out independently, but many reached similar conclusions. Expanding on both Marx and Lenin before them, later Marxists offered expanded critiques of capitalist-imperialism.

Authors such as Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy, Samir Amin, Arghiri Emmanuel, Andre Gunder Frank, Immanuel Wallerstein, Walter Rodney, and those associated with the Maoist Internationalist Movement, all writing since the 1960s, have sought to better understand the development of global divisions of labor and class relations, the manner in which surplus value and ‘economic surplus’ is created and distributed throughout the global economy, and the implications this has had for likely systemic developments and anti-systemic (including Marxist) movements.

What has been uncovered is that a substantial portion of the working class receives a portion of surplus at the expense of members of the proletariat elsewhere. It is not only the imperialist and local bourgeoisie which appropriates surplus. Rather, as part of imperialism, this surplus is saturated among the First World working class as well. This helps explains the workings of modern ‘post-industrial’ capitalism; the extreme differences in wages and standards of living in different parts of the world; and the resultant differences in evident class consciousness.

Marxism’s recent influence in the United States

Despite the ‘wages of imperialism’ which affect class alignments in the contemporary world, Marxism has been influential in radical movements in the US. During the late 1960s and early 1970s for example, during a worldwide upsurge of radical and revolutionary movements, Marxism was particularly influential in revolutionary student and national liberation movements.

The radical wings of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), for example, were influenced by Marxism. A 1969 split in SDS led to the formation of several anti-imperialist organizations, including the Weather Underground. While the Weather Underground and other groups made significant errors in their practice, their strident internationalism was a positive influence on the whole. Also in the United States, organizations such as the Black Panther Party were influenced by the revolutionary Marxism of the time. The Black Panther Party was itself one of many revolutionary Black nationalist organizations, including the notable Revolutionary Action Movement, which were increasingly influenced by revolutionary Marxism. Following in the footsteps of the Black Marxists, nationalism and revolutionary Marxism was applied to the Chicano/Mexicano question in the ‘southwest’ as well, and Marxism was similarly embraced by Asian revolutionary groups on the West Coast.

Marxism lives on

In countries such as India and the Philippines, nominal Marxist guerrillas are currently fighting people’s wars against comprador (or neo-colonial) states. The Maoist Communist Party in Nepal led a ten-year people’s war which in 2006 ousted a centuries old monarchy while failing to achieve its full objectives. Due to this, it recently split into revolutionary and bourgeois factions, the former which aims to push the struggle forward. And in several other countries through South Asia, Marxist revolutionaries are attempting to regroup and rectify themselves to advance to struggle for communism.

The stamp of Marxism and ‘spectre of communim’ exists through the Third World. The number of popular bourgeois-nationalist governments in Latin America which are either influenced in some way by Marxism or play lip service to it is an indication of its influence and broad appeal.

Marxism was widely popular in Africa throughout the 20th century. Many incisive Marxists such as Walter Rodney, Kwame Nkrumah, and Samir Amin came from and wrote primarily through their experience on the subjugated continent. Unfortunately, various revisionism emanating from  the Soviet Union and China hindered the full development of class struggle in Africa. This class struggle continues today however as Africans continue to be pillaged for natural resources and labor. Some have noted a new ‘scramble for Africa’ between the US and Europe on one side and China and Russia on another. In response, various revolutionary organizing efforts, including those carried out by the African Socialist International, are underway throughout the African continent.

In the United States itself, there are many trends and organizations which describe themselves as informed by Marxism. These groups are few and far between and isolated from the population at large, and they are sometimes divided over various historical and political interpretations. In addition to their lack of effectiveness in mobilizing for their larger causes, many such nominal Marxist organizations have simplistically dogmatic and incorrect understandings on class relations, typically to the effect of disregarding the manner in which First World workers are invested with surplus via monopoly capital. In more recent years, the term First Worldist has been coined to negatively describe those who profess ‘left-wing’ or Marxist beliefs without assimilating a coherent view of global class. On the other hand, Third Worldists stress that the archetypal proletarian resides formally and socially outside of the First World and that any global socialist revolution will be accomplished against the material interests of First World populations at large. Not surprisingly, the First Worldist viewpoint tends to be dominant in First World countries, and it is even prevalent in Third Wold ones.

Marxist-inspired national liberation groups in the United States have had a better track record on the issue of global class. However, they suffer from many of the same problems as First Worldist organizations in that their effectiveness and influence is limited. Nonetheless, recent projects such as the Jackson-Kush Plan for National Liberation (put forward by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement and the New African People’s Organization) may indicate  Marxist-inspired revolutionary nationalism is again on the rise.

Marxism from here

Marxism is as complicated as it is rich. Many valuable lessons can be derived from its practical and methodology history, yet many nominal Marxists have failed to draw appropriate conclusions. Besides First Worldism, many modern Marxist proponents deviate from revolutionary practice by means of reformism (the tendency to address specific issues facing various populations without changing the definitive social relations of society); tailism (the tendency to simply regurgitate what people are already saying in an amplified way without adding any specific radical insights); idealism (the tendency to believe ideas have transformative force unto themselves outside of class struggle); dogmatism (the tendency to uncritically uphold a set of interpretations without regard to newer counter-demonstrative practice and ideas); sectarianism (the tendency to put oneself or one’s organization above the necessary exigencies of the revolutionary struggle); and cultism (an extreme form of the latter deviations, whereby internal group dynamics promote an uncritical self-aggrandizing view of themselves, their organization, or leaders, thereby promoting a sectarian view in the process).

Despite these problems within ‘Marxisms,’ Marxism itself, as an incisive philosophy geared towards the emancipation of the proletariat (and thus, humanity broadly), is still extremely relevant for the struggles facing people today. This will be so as long as class struggle continues to be the primary engine of historical change; so long as people are faced with oppressive conditions for which they are impelled to rebel against.

By offering an incisive exposition of the capitalist-imperialist system and the history of radical struggles, revolutionary Marxism, when refined for the immediate struggle, is an indispensable weapon in the arsenal of the exploited and oppressed. Marxism is understanding not only the power of the proletariat when organized for revolution but also how to tap that power. As such, it is the best tool the masses have for smashing capitalist-imperialism and laying the foundations for socialism and communism.

Far from offering all the answers, Marxism is a ‘guide to action’: a call to scientifically investigate various problems for the purpose of organizing to overthrow the current system.

The world will certainly be much different in 50 or 60 years. The question of if it be better or worse is still undecided. With this in mind, it might just be a broader and deeper interest in revolutionary Marxism, with its rich philosophical and practical history, which offers the best or even only hope for the former outcome.


Nick Brown is a co-founder and member of the editorial team of Anti-Imperialism.com. This Fall he is facilitating courses on Marxist political economy at the recently founded People’s Liberation University.


1 According to David Harvey, Marx had initially planned on writing five volumes to Das Kapital, the latter of which would have dealt more with issues such as international trade, colonialism, and tertiary aspects of economics.

Join the conversation! 4 Comments

  1. […] on the development of successive revolutionary trends within Marxism, see my previous essay ‘What is Marxism.’ For a longer introduction to Maoism, see Bernard D’Mello’s ‘What is […]

  2. […] on the development of successive revolutionary trends within Marxism, see my previous essay ‘What is Marxism.’ For a longer introduction to Maoism, see Bernard D’Mello’s ‘What is […]

  3. […] sketch on the development of successive revolutionary trends within Marxism, see my previous essay ‘What is Marxism.’ For a longer introduction to Maoism, see Bernard D’Mello’s ‘What is […]


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History, Lenin, Maoism, Marxism, Political Economy, Revolutionary Foreign Policy, Russia, Theory


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