What Is Marxism?

Marxism is a social, political, and economic philosophy named after Karl Marx, which examines the effect of capitalism on labor, productivity, and economic development and argues for a worker revolution to overturn capitalism in favor of communism. Marxism posits that the struggle between social classes, specifically between the bourgeoisie, or capitalists, and the proletariat, or workers, defines economic relations in a capitalist economy and will inevitably lead to revolutionary communism.

Key Takeaways

  • Marxism is a social, political, and economic theory originated by Karl Marx, which focuses on the struggle between capitalists and the working class. 
  • Marx wrote that the power relationships between capitalists and workers were inherently exploitative and would inevitably create class conflict. 
  • He believed that this conflict would ultimately lead to a revolution in which the working class would overthrow the capitalist class and seize control of the economy.

Understanding Marxism

Marxism is both a social and political theory, which encompasses Marxist class conflict theory and Marxian economics. Marxism was first publicly formulated in the 1848 pamphlet, The Communist Manifesto, by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, which lays out the theory of class struggle and revolution. Marxian economics focuses on the criticisms of capitalism brought forth by Karl Marx in his 1867 book, Das Kapital

Marx’s class theory portrays capitalism as one step in the historical progression of economic systems that follow one another in a natural sequence driven by vast impersonal forces of history that play out through the behavior and conflict between social classes. According to Marx, every society is divided among a number of social classes, whose members have more in common with one another than with members of other social classes. In a capitalist system, Marx believed that the society was made up of two classes, the bourgeoisie, or business owners who control the means of production, and the proletariat, or workers whose labor transforms raw commodities into valuable economic goods. The bourgeoisie's control of the means of production gives them power over the proletariat, which allows them to limit the workers ability to produce and obtain what they need to survive. 

Marx believed that capitalism is based on commodities, which are things bought and sold. In Marx's view, an employee's labor is a form of commodity. However, since ordinary laborers do not own the means of production, such as factories, buildings, and materials, they have little power in the capitalist economic system. Workers are also readily replaceable in periods of high unemployment, further devaluing their perceived worth.

To maximize profits, business owners have an incentive to get the most work out of their laborers while paying them the lowest wages possible. They also own the end product that is the result of the worker's labor, and ultimately profit from its surplus value, which is the difference between what it costs to produce the item and the price for which it is eventually sold. 

To maintain their position of power and privilege, the bourgeoisie employ social institutions as tools and weapons against the proletariat. The government enforces the will of the bourgeoisie by physical coercion to enforce the laws and private property rights to the means of production. The media and academics, or intelligentsia, produce propaganda to suppress awareness of class relations among the proletariat and rationalize the capitalist system. Organized religion provides a similar function to convince the proletariat to accept and submit to their own exploitation based on fictional divine sanction, which Marx called "the opium of the masses." The banking and financial system facilitates the consolidation of capitalist ownership of the means of production, ensnares the workers with predatory debt, and engineers regular financial crises and recessions to ensure a sufficient supply of unemployed labor in order to undermine workers’ bargaining power.  

Marx felt that capitalism creates an unfair imbalance between capitalists and the laborers whose work they exploit for their own gain. In turn, this exploitation leads the workers to view their employment as nothing more than a means of survival. Since the worker has little personal stake in the process of production, Marx believed he would become alienated from it and resentful toward the business owner and his own humanity.

In Marx's view, economic factors and relationships between social classes are closely interrelated. The inherent inequalities and exploitative economic relations between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie would ultimately lead to a revolution in which capitalism will be abolished. While laborers are focused on basic survival, capitalist business owners are concerned with acquiring more and more money. According to Marx, this economic polarity creates social problems that would eventually be remedied through a social and economic revolution.

Thus he thought that the capitalist system inherently contained the seeds of its own destruction, because the alienation and exploitation of the proletariat that are fundamental to capitalist relations would inevitably drive the working class to rebel against the bourgeoisie and seize control of the means of production. This revolution would be led by enlightened leaders, known as the vanguard of the proletariat, who understand the class structure of society and who would unite the working class by raising awareness and class consciousness. As a result of the revolution, Marx predicted that private ownership of the means of production would be replaced by collective ownership, under communism or socialism