What Is Marxism?

Marxism is a social, political, and economic philosophy named after Karl Marx. It 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, which Karl Marx wrote about in his 1867 book, Das Kapital.

Class conflict and the demise of capitalism

Marx’s class theory portrays capitalism as one step in the historical progression of economic systems that follow one another in a natural sequence. They are driven, he posited, by vast impersonal forces of history that play out through the behavior and conflict among 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.

The following are elements of Marx's theories on how class conflict would play out in a capitalist system.

  • Capitalist society is 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.
  • Ordinary laborers, who do not own the means of production, such as factories, buildings, and materials, 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 possible wages. This creates an unfair imbalance between owners and the laborers whose work they exploit for their own gain.
  • Because workers have little personal stake in the process of production, Marx believed they would become alienated from it (as well as from their own humanity) and resentful toward the business owner.
  • The bourgeoisie also employ social institutions, including government, media, academia, organized religion, and banking and financial systems, as tools and weapons against the proletariat with the goal of maintaining their position of power and privilege.
  • Ultimately, the inherent inequalities and exploitative economic relations between these two classes will lead to a revolution in which the working class rebels against the bourgeoisie, seizes control of the means of production, and abolishes capitalism.

Thus Marx thought that the capitalist system inherently contained the seeds of its own destruction. 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 understood 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, first under socialism and then under communism. In the final stage of human development, social classes and class struggle would no longer exist.

Communism vs. Socialism vs. Capitalism

Marx and Engel's ideas laid the groundwork for the theory and practice of communism. Communism advocates for a classless system in which all property and wealth are communally, rather than privately, owned. Although the former Soviet Union, China, and Cuba, among other nations, have had nominally communist governments, there's never actually been a purely communist state that has completely eliminated personal property, money, and class systems.

Socialism predates communism by several decades. Early adherents called for a more egalitarian distribution of wealth, solidarity among workers, better working conditions, and common ownership of land and manufacturing equipment. Socialism is based on the idea of public ownership of the means of production, but individuals may still own property. Rather than arising out of a class revolution, socialist reform takes place within the existing social and political structures, whether they be democratic, technocratic, oligarchic, or totalitarian.

Both communism and socialism oppose capitalism, an economic system characterized by private ownership and a system of laws that protect the right to own or transfer private property. In a capitalist economy, private individuals and enterprises own the means of production and the right to profit from them. Communism and socialism aim to right the wrongs of capitalism's free-market system. These include worker exploitation and inequities between rich and poor.

Criticism of Marxism

Though Marx inspired multitudes of followers, many of his predictions have not come to pass. Marx believed that increasing competition, rather than producing better goods for consumers, would lead to bankruptcy among capitalists and the rise of monopolies, as fewer and fewer were left to control production. Bankrupt former capitalists would join the proletariat, eventually creating an army of the unemployed. In addition, the market economy, which by its nature is unplanned, would experience huge supply-and-demand problems and cause severe depressions.

Yet over the years, capitalism has not collapsed as a result of fierce competition. Although markets have changed over time, they haven't led to a preponderance of monopolies. Wages have risen and profits have not declined, although economic inequality has increased in many capitalist societies. And though there have been recessions and depressions, they are not thought to be an inherent feature of free markets. Indeed, a society without competition, money, and private property has never materialized, and the history of the 20th century suggests it is likely an unworkable concept.